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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So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.


Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.