This month marks seven months since the re-launch of the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Back in March, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed an audience of town planners, urban designers, and developers promising to reform the system to promote more equal access to housing.
Since that speech, a new housing minister has been appointed, the government have announced a prospectus for new Garden Towns, the NPPF has undergone a further revision, and just last month May herself announced an extra £2bn in funding for social housing. Yet, despite all this, nothing seems to have really changed.
Although the £2bn for social housing gained May a rare standing ovation, her critics point out the funding won’t be available until 2022 and might eventually only deliver around 5,000 new homes. The call for new sustainable towns sounds equally ambitious, but a closer examination of the detail suggests the programme simply seeks to rebrand existing proposals. Although these announcements sound radical, neither is backed by the funding or decision-making powers necessary increase supply in the short to medium terms.
There have been no announcements on further commitments to infrastructure which would make poorly connected areas viable locations for development. Likewise, until extremely recently, there has been no mention of additional powers for Local Authorities to raise funds to build more council homes. Perhaps most disappointingly, the promotion of Garden Towns has not been accompanied by a discussion around shifting the dynamic of taxation from properties to land.
In the absence of any tangible increase in funding, May has previously sought to target disingenuous developers who hoard land to artificially inflate house prices. Given the Conservative’s predisposition to private delivery, the big stick mooted by the PM has been largely rhetorical.
Whilst reform in this area is undoubtedly welcome, forcing developers to accelerate build out rates won’t stop them overbidding for sites in the first place – nor will it address the local aversion to change that slows delivery. Most importantly perhaps, oversimplifying the roles of local communities and developers as heroes and villains respectively belies the multifaceted nature of pressures on housing.
In September, Sky News published the results of detailed analysis that sought to dispel the myth of a monolithic national housing crises. Through an in-depth mapping exercise, its research argued the UK is simultaneously undergoing five separate crises related to a lack of both supply and demand, under-occupation, quality and credit. The analysis rebuffs the binary debate of supply and demand, rejecting the idea that building 300,000 homes a year is the answer to many of the challenges the UK faces.
The findings also demonstrate how the health of any given housing market is inexplicitly linked to strength of the local economy. It should come as no shock that the areas blighted by a lack of demand and quality are also characterised by high levels of deprivation and unemployment.
May’s government has rightly attracted some praise for discussing housing in more nuanced terms. It wasn’t too long ago that national discourse was reduced to an oversimplified, and often artificial choice of brownfield verses green belt development. Whilst the evolution beyond this is welcome, last month’s findings suggest housing policy requires far greater regional specificity if it is to address issues around social justice and equality.
Policy dreamt up in Westminster has a distinctly southern focus and is ill-equipped to deal with such a complex array of challenges. Solutions for the housing crisis must also be thought of in more holistic terms, taking in economic regeneration, infrastructure and the environment. Crucially, policy needs to be backed by adequate funds, power and long-term planning.
Until the government thinks in these terms, kind words on housing will continue to undermine social mobility rather than promote it.
Jas Bhalla is an architect and town planner.