Theresa May’s keynote speech on tackling the housing crisis was peppered with bold statements but do they go far enough?
The £1bn commitment to tackle homelessness and proposals to boost affordable homes reinforce the Government’s intention to tackle some of the most significant housing issues. But a crackdown on landbanking developers shifts the focus onto an issue that in reality, will make little difference to the rate of housebuilding in the UK.
A more collaborative approach
Encouraging developers and local authorities to work together would be a more effective strategy. Given the scale of the problem, additional resources and support will be required whether that’s on a financial or strategic level. Partnership working between housing providers, developers, local authorities and private equity firms is therefore vital.
Whether through a joint venture or new housing company, a collaborative approach will enable complementary organisations to take advantage of each other’s strengths and skills and potentially create new funding models to accelerate housebuilding.
There aren’t many people in our sector that would disagree that the UK’s planning system needs to be overhauled. We need to find ways to make it quicker and easier for large housing schemes to be approved by planning authorities, and to help engage local communities. However, the proposal for councils to consider revoking planning permission after two years if building hasn’t started, could be difficult to implement and raises unanswered questions.
Larger schemes can often be complex sites involving multiple land holdings. With pressure to avoid greenbelts, those delivering housing also have to consider land with heavy contamination. Typical pre-commencement conditions for these sites can take a significant period to address, particularly if they have been drafted too onerously. If contamination has to be removed first with periods of monitoring would this be classified as commencement of works? If not, this could dissuade developers from funding development on these sites and limit land availability.
Theresa May also highlighted that councils will have to adopt a new nationwide standard showing housing need in their areas. Standardising requirements is a welcome move but to make a difference, this approach will also need to filter through to planning committee decisions, ensuring applications are also treated the same within different local authorities.
One of the most significant things missing from the speech was skills. The skills crisis is far from a new problem but it’s yet to be addressed and is a risk for the whole construction sector. Measures to boost housebuilding and get spades in the ground will be fruitless unless there’s a skilled construction workforce and this requires more funding. The same applies in local authorities – there needs to be more investment in resources and tools that will enable planning departments to enforce new measures and deal more effectively with barriers such as the discharge of pre-commencement conditions.
No silver bullet
We all know that there’s no silver bullet to solve the housing crisis, so we need a range of different measures to boost housing supply. The Prime Minister’s speech highlighted clear intentions to overcome some of the biggest hurdles. Unanswered questions are inevitable but until these are addressed, it remains to be seen whether these good intentions turn into viable solutions.
Caroline Mostowfi and Jonathan Corris are partners in our Real Estate and Projects Team.