The housing white paper and how it might challenge developers and housebuilders

The White Paper includes a heavy focus on housebuilders with new measures including ‘more active use of compulsory purchase powers to promote development on stalled sites for housing’. This is aimed at speeding up housebuilding and would see land taken away from developers considered under-performing – ‘use it or lose it’ as the headlines describe it.
Confirmed proposals include cutting from three to two years the time that developers have to start the building process, once permission has been granted but only when the viability of a site isn’t put in jeopardy. The plans promise a planning framework that does more to support higher levels of development. This would include quicker and more effective processing and determination of planning applications as well as ‘an improved approach to developer contributions’. The paper also includes promises to encourage ‘modern methods of construction in house building’, ‘greater diversity of homebuilders by partnering with smaller and medium-sized builders and contractors in the Accelerated Construction programme, and helping small and medium-sized builders access the loan finance they need.
In return, the government says it expects developers to build more homes, to engage with communities to promote the benefits of development, to focus on design and quality, and to build homes swiftly where permission is granted.
Not just that, but developers will also need to take responsibility for investing in their research and skills base to create more sustainable career paths and create thousands of new skilled roles.
The government’s 2015 manifesto pledge to build 200,000 starter homes (those sold at a 20 per cent discount) this parliament and the requirement for 20% of the homes on all new developments to be starter homes has been dropped.
Instead, 10% of all sites will be required to be for affordable homeownership with the percentage of starter homes set locally by councils.Additionally, the length of time before the starter home could be sold at full market value will be increased to 15 years, in a reversal of previous government policy.
Finally, the government says it is considering whether to tell councils to take a developer’s track record into account when deciding planning permission for large sites and that councils should only change green belt boundaries “when they can demonstrate that they have examined fully all other reasonable options”. Where land is removed from the green belt a council should “offset” this with “compensatory improvements” to remaining green belt land. The government will also look at whether higher fees can be paid by developers who build on green belt land.

Specific recommendations that affect developers, as outlined in the white paper, include:

  1. Making sure every part of the country has an up-to-date, sufficiently ambitious plan so that local communities decide where development should go;
    Simplifying plan-making and making it more transparent, so it’s easier for communities to produce plans and easier for developers to follow them;
  2. Ensuring that plans start from an honest assessment of the need for new homes, and that local authorities work with their neighbours, so that difficult decisions are not ducked;
  3. Clarifying what land is available for new housing, through greater transparency over who owns land and the options held on it;
  4. Making more land available for homes in the right places, by maximising the contribution from brownfield and surplus public land, regenerating estates, releasing more small and medium-sized sites, allowing rural communities to grow and making it easier to build new settlements;
  5. Maintaining existing strong protections for the Green Belt, and clarifying that Green Belt boundaries should be amended only in exceptional circumstances when local authorities can demonstrate that they have fully examined all other reasonable options for meeting their identi ed housing requirements;
  6. Giving communities a stronger voice in the design of new housing to drive up the quality and character of new development, building on the success of neighbourhood planning
  7. Making better use of land for housing by encouraging higher densities, where appropriate, such as in urban locations where there is high housing demand; and by reviewing space standards
  8. Supporting developers to build out more quickly by tackling unnecessary delays caused by planning conditions, facilitating the strategic licensing of protected species and exploring a new approach to how developers contribute to infrastructure;
  9. Backing small and medium-sized builders to grow, including through the Home Building Fund;
  10. Supporting custom-build homes with greater access to land, giving more people more choice over the design of their home;
  11. Bringing in new contractors through our Accelerated Construction programme that can build homes more quickly than traditional builders;
  12. Encouraging more institutional investors into housing, including for building more homes for private rent, and encouraging family- friendly tenancies;
  13. Holding developers to account for the delivery of new homes through better and more transparent data and sharper tools to drive up delivery;
  14. Boosting productivity and innovation by encouraging modern methods of construction in house building;

Government announcements are routinely described as ‘radical’ and this white paper was no exception. Sadly, beyond community secretary Sajid Javid’s rousing calls-to-arms to the housebuilding and housing sectors to provide more places for people to live, was a distinct lack of detail. This has led to commentators labelling the White Paper a damp squib. While this may be a little unfair – in parts there are bold moves – in many ways it is by no means clear that ‘Fixing our broken housing market’ is anything like the promised silver bullet to get the UK building more homes. The government has at least acknowledged that the ‘home ownership for all’ ideal is looking further away than ever and has put its weight behind the build-to-rent industry. For instance, there are measures in the paper which promote the building of apartment blocks managed by professional companies and backed by institutional lenders. The rise in stamp duty last April badly hit this sector and it needs help to become established. In addition the emphasis on modern methods of construction is a welcome boost which may help open the market to new – possibly quicker, possibly cheaper – ways of building and therefore selling homes. But it is developers, housebuilders and councils who will be feeling the effect of the proposals the most. Forcing councils to provide comprehensive local plans which calculate their housing needs and which will need to be revisited every five years could put significant pressure on those that do not submit or stick to them. The rises in fees by 20 per cent will help soften the blow and some will say that central government holding local authorities to account more readily is a welcome move.
But what are developers to make of the announcement? Is the spectre of compulsory purchase orders on those developers which retain land for future development enough to scare them into altering their entire approach to creating a pipeline of development land? Some in the industry fear this will actually have the reverse effect of that intended and lead to fewer planning applications. Land is, in effect, the industry’s raw material and needs to be carefully managed if developers’ business models are to work properly. Forcing an increase in the rate of building once work has begun could also be counter-productive and cause developers to only apply for planning permission for smaller sites. If landbanking does exist in real life to the same extent and in the same way as it does in the febrile imaginations of newspaper editors then the government’s plans to beef up the powers of the Land Registry – not so long ago planned for privatisation – could make the ownership of land that much clearer. Ministers hope to have comprehensive land registration complete by 2030.

All in all, the fear lingers that, rather than providing a radical solution to a notoriously intractable public policy problem, ‘Fixing our broken housing market’ just slaps some go-faster stripes on previous white paper policies and calls itself a Ferrari.

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