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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A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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