The housing white paper is a missed opportunity for planning

The British planning system in action. Image: Getty.

The long-anticipated housing white paper promises to fix a housing market that, by the government’s own admission, is profoundly broken. It marks a shift away from some long cherished ideological pillars: that the basis of prosperity and progress lies in owning one’s own home. This has been the position advanced by both Conservative and Labour governments for more than half a century.

But while raising the possibility that home ownership does not have to be the be-all and end-all of housing policy, this white paper risks widening further the gaping chasm between the haves and the have-nots in society.

As the Joseph Rowntree’s housing market task force concluded over five years ago, the housing market is the main engine of inequality in British society. To move away from a property-owning democracy demands making sure that the alternative – renting – is affordable, safe, offers the same sense of security for families, and provides the same access to genuinely liveable places, as ownership. The white paper falls well short of the mark in achieving tenure parity in these four important areas.

This is because:

  • A commitment to renting requires a commitment to investing in making the sector truly affordable, not just for the young professionals of Generation Rent, but for all in society. The opening up of the Affordable Homes programme to a range of products and tenures is to be welcomed, but the white paper’s strengthening of government’s resolve to continue its widely criticised policy of expanding the scope of the Right to Buy to Housing Associations will work counter to this. This is because it undermines investor confidence in housing association development.
  • The white paper fails to grasp the nettle of poor standards in the Private Rented Sector. The PRS in Britain is in most part an informal cottage industry desperately in need of greater levels of professionalism and investment. Lenders want the certainty that their assets will be well managed, but the white paper offers nothing to tackle the notoriously shonky practices within the unregulated landlord and agent sectors.
  • While a commitment to extend security of tenure is welcome, the white paper wants to rely on dialogue between government and landlords to achieve this. It is hard to see how this will be an effective approach without proper sticks and carrots.
  • Finally, renting privately in too many parts of the country means living in cramped, poorly constructed and badly managed flats in areas without access to decent schools, health services, open space. Place-making – and more investment in services – needs to be at the heart of a radical approach to creating new communities and making renting work for families.

Will the housing white paper lead to a step change in the delivery of new homes? It says some things that move us in the right direction. For example, strengthening the powers of local authorities to ensure that, having obtained planning permission, developers “use it or lose it”, is welcome.

But the bigger prize is moving to a far more visionary and plan-led system, capable of delivering at scale, whilst also energising a decimated and moribund sector of small players (the SME builders). Without making the web of support schemes easier for mere mortals to understand and apply for, and without offering finance on better rates than your bank manager can, the HCA will do little to engage SMEs. Hopefully Homes England will turn its attention to this when it comes into being.


The white paper casually makes the links between a renewed industrial strategy for Britain and its housing market – but it needs to do more. Genuinely game-changing plans for new housing need to be aligned with innovative strategies for economic growth and jobs creation.

Simply subjecting councils to a needless “housing delivery test” (which would be fine were it not for the fact that councils don’t in the main deliver housing – developers do) misses the point. When builders do build, they do so cautiously and only where the demand is.

This is ultimately the point that Sajid Javid seems to miss in the white paper. He says, “the solution means building many more houses in the places that people want to live”. The real strategy should be creating the places where people want to live.

This can be achieved through a combination of sound economic development, visionary planning, and investment in infrastructure – and, with the right mix of encouragement and incentive – we can then expect the developers to rise to the challenge.

Dr Ed Ferrari is a senior lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies & Planning at the University of Sheffield.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.