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Planners are central to the housing solution

01 July 2013

by Joe Sarling, Policy Officer, RTPI


Joe SarlingFor those of us who get disproportionately excited about political speeches and milestones, last week saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer deliver the Comprehensive Spending Review. I rushed back from an RTPI roundtable event we hosted – more on this later – just in time to see George Osborne announce spending direction just a mere two years before the next general election. We (a very small proportion) waited with bated breath.

The Chancellor – and the Government the following day - certainly made some significant announcements including the desire to release more public land for development to be administered from a single agency, a pot of money worth £3.3 billion for affordable housing between 2015/6 to 2017/8 (aiming to deliver 165,000 new homes) and launching a new Affordable Rent to Buy scheme with a pot of money worth £250 million in 2015-16 and £150 million in 2016-17 to support new affordable homes for rent and eventual sale. 

While I welcome these announcements – so long the money isn’t only coming from financial accounting shifts and that it does actually deliver new houses and not just inflation – there is a wider issue. I find it interesting that there seems to be a general consensus that we need more houses but that the narrative and polarised debate that plays out in the media misses the point of the problem. Media articles (and those with the loudest voices) seem to place everyone in one of two camps – either that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is too liberal and local authorities won’t be able to resist development or that the planning system is too restrictive and that all we need to do to stimulate development is cut away the red tape. It doesn’t take a leap of faith to see how both positions, ironically, make the same assumption that all local people will resist development and all policy makers need to do is either protect them from development or pay them off for development. 

On the back of these assumptions, micro policies, such as New Homes Bonus or Get Britain Building, are formed. Indeed, there was a mention for the New Homes Bonus – that £400 million of the pot is going to the Single Pot approach that Local Enterprise Partnerships will have access to. Furthermore, Nationwide released data last week showing house prices have increased by 1.9% over the past year – the fastest since September 2010 – as a result of credit expansion from Funding for Lending but that supply doesn’t seem to be improving. 

This week brought separate events together and they shed light on a problem. We have been hosting roundtable events across the country discussing the role and delivery of large scale housing sites which will feed into our policy paper to be published later this year. Needless to say, the delegates were happy to be candid! 

The idea that the goal is to get people to accept development and the housing world will be fine falls well short – the hard works starts after permission.

Indeed, general themes coming forward include: the public sector’s role in infrastructure delivery; land ownership issues with private owners holding the country to ransom on viable and necessary plots; the potential need for a middle tier of spatial strategy and planning now that RDAs and RSSs have been abolished; the need for high quality community engagement by both developer and local authority to bring people along in the process and; questioning the use of s106 agreements and CIL given the economic climate. 

However, the key point from the roundtables was that planners are seen as the key practitioner to join all of these issues together. Their long term approach on place shaping and community building means they are perfectly placed to help deliver housing and only letting the voices that treat them as a scapegoat is counter-productive. 

The housing issue will only be solved by a higher vision and a broader, more joined-up approach. Let’s use planners’ skills to help deliver more houses.

About Joe Sarling

Joe Sarling is the Policy Officer at the RTPI and leads on the large scale housing development project - His interests include economics, the housing market, finance and investment and how they link with the planning profession. Prior to this he worked at an economics think tank leading on the topic of housing and working on local government finance.