At last, the end of the beginning is here: we have the long-awaited Housing White Paper, aka Fixing our broken housing market. Quoting Churchill might seem a little extreme but with the frenzy of press stories on Green Belt, new settlements and developers over the past few weeks, it seems odd to think we hadn’t even seen the paper itself until yesterday.
Housing White Paper: worth the wait?
The good news is that the Government seems to have finally recognised that the housing market is more of a problem than it has previously admitted. In seeking to tackle the failings of the housing market rather than just meddle with the planning system, the paper shows promising signs of doing some things differently.
But, that’s not to say the proposals are without concern. I don’t think that CPRE can down tools quite yet.
The full effects of the paper will take some time to unfold. Notably, the details of many measures in the paper are interwoven with an expected update to the NPPF later this year and the promise of a new standardised way of calculating Objectively Assessed Need. Both have hazards for the countryside.
In the meantime, there is the welcome recognition by the Government that there are many opportunities to meet housing need without building on precious green spaces. Indeed, we like to think we have had some influence on some of their thinking, especially the rowing back from a Green Belt free-for-all. In what looks like a positive result for CPRE, the paper includes a commitment to maintain strong protections for Green Belt - it emphasised again that Green Belt boundaries should only be amended in exceptional circumstances. However, with CPRE’s latest analysis showing that 360,000 houses are currently planned for Green Belt, the threat is not yet past.
The paper also sets out plans to support more brownfield development and regeneration of urban centres, as well as looking at areas with high numbers of empty houses and second homes. The fact that this Government has fallen back in love with regeneration is, I feel confident, a direct result of CPRE’s campaigning.
Small and medium housebuilders, often more willing and able to build on smaller sites, will see more support to compete with the housing behemoths. And the paper also promises more support for housing associations and local authorities to build more homes, helping to ensure the need for affordable housing is better met. There is mention of increasing densities in our cities; in a recent interview Communities and Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid acknowledged that London is one of the least dense cities in Europe, with plenty of potential to increase housing without sprawling into the countryside.
There are also proposals to discourage developers from dragging their heels once they have the land and permissions needed to build. The Government is clearly well intentioned here, but I’m not convinced that the measures proposed for councils to hold developers to account will have the impact intended. The proposals are clearly linked to an obsession with the idea that the answer to any housing delivery problem is to identify more development sites – this has to stop.
The heralded change in how housing need should be calculated, and the impact of whatever’s decided will be a crucial factor in the levels of threat the countryside will face. We must make sure that housing targets reflect constraints like Green Belt and valued landscapes, and plan to meet genuine need rather than the market led demand that has created such havoc in the countryside.
But at the very least the Housing White Paper has opened up opportunities for much of CPRE’s campaigning to have very positive impacts. More will doubtless follow.