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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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”