Chaos means opportunities – 2017 could be a turning point

Greetings to 2017. And a very Happy New Year to all you out there in EG land.

Did you want to come back? I certainly struggled. Was it a longer break than usual this year? Or did it just feel that way?

In the midst of my Seasonal Affective Disorder (and the fact that I have seriously done my back in) I have been trying to crank up some enthusiasm for the plethora of housing announcements that we face this January (see also blog 15 December). Blimey, we’ve already had a hyperactive couple: garden villages on Monday; starter homes on Tuesday! One of my team commented guilelessly “there has hardly been a day pass by without a “major new housing initiative” being announced, some of them perhaps even achievable”. Made me smile.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, and his most able housing minister, Gavin Barwell, are gearing up to publish the Housing White Paper later this month (clever money still on 16 January btw) to try to accelerate homebuilding figures. But there are now the inevitable reports circulating, notably in the FT today, that the team is facing opposition from within their own government ranks, to housing reforms because of fears there will be a “huge backlash in Middle England”. To which the only sane response is a weary groan.

Apparently it is Theresa May herself who leads those with misgivings, remembering the reaction from the shires when the coalition sought to overhaul the planning system five years ago with the advent of the (quite brilliant) National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). And there you have it: the conundrum at the heart of Conservative housing policy: the need to radically tackle housing supply (and house prices) as a crucial plank of the government’s attempts to help “just about managing” voters, with Conservative MPs who are traditionally hostile to new housebuilding because they tend to represent rural seats. How to square that circle? Well we’re going to have to grow up here. It is not OK for Tory MPs to only be in favour of housing growth in the abstract, or in anywhere other than in their own constituency. We are going to have to be a darn sight cuter than that.

Call me old fashioned, or just call me old, the dreary inevitability of this petty squabble is exhausting. And it does make you rather yearn for, rather than fear, the new political settlement which seems to be inevitable for this country.

Everyone is so predictable. Shaun Spiers, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, sure is limbering up for a busy January. His opening salvo is that it would be “toxic” to force councils to increase their targets when local authorities are already struggling to meet existing goals. “If this happens there will be a huge backlash in Middle England. People will not have faith in the planning system,” he said. “We will return to a situation where not enough homes are getting built but we still have lots of planning battles.” Another, rather lurid, comment doing the rounds in the press (and on Twitter) is that putting this much housing growth through the existing planning system would be like putting “20,000 volts through a small hamster”.

And there is no doubt that there is a problem here. The planning system, notably the NPPF, and Local Plans, may not need overhauling (in my view) but it needs to be empowered and emboldened as a major priority. The NPPF will need to be proactively implemented.

So… for those of us who are trying to be optimistic I say this: the Housing White Paper certainly won’t be perfect, but it will contain some new measures which could provide the platform for the market disruption we so desperately need, notably moving away from a reliance on the big housebuilders. Gavin Barwell is a nuanced and sophisticated operator, who has got his formidable brain around the problem. DCLG is gearing up to boost its capabilities on the NPPF front in particular, and Greg Clark (the architect of the NPPF of course) now over at Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is seeking to populate his “place-based industrial strategy”. Pro-growth local authorities are going to come forward who are willing to see their Local Plans repurposed away from “Nimbys’ charters” toward responsible manifestoes for growth. But, most of all, I believe that people in the housing market (hopefully including my own company UKR, claims she, modestly) will find a way of meeting this major opportunity with a commercial response. A commercial response which makes sense for one and all.

Chaos always creates opportunities. 2017 could well be the turning point.

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