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Why the Housing White Paper for England heralds a better debate on planning

15 February 2017 Author: Dr Michael Harris

House Building

The UK Government’s Housing White Paper published last week got a mixed reception.

The anti-planners felt let down. Predictably, the Institute of Economic Affairs lamented the Government’s failure to “rollback …planning regulations and green belt protections”.

Shelter meanwhile felt the White Paper was a “A step, rather than a leap, in the right direction”, welcoming measures to improve slow build out rates, land transparency, the sale of public land, and allowing local areas to set up development corporations for new settlements.

The RTPI’s response supported the Government’s embrace of a wider range of housing tenures, transparency over land, joining-up development with infrastructure, and more resources for local authority planning departments (which of course we’ve been campaigning strongly for). We also noted however that the White Paper made no mention of mechanisms to capture rising private land values to better benefit communities.   

Despite its limitations, the White Paper is perhaps to be welcomed most for establishing a better debate on housing and planning in England.

As its title Fixing our Broken Housing Market suggests, there’s now a much stronger recognition under Theresa May’s Government that the issues in housing are wide-ranging and complex.

Here were the key phrases I noted down during Secretary of State Sajid Javid’s speech introducing the White paper:

  • No single magic bullet
  • Planning permissions are up
  • Concerted efforts in local government
  • Broader view of “affordability” – rental not just ownership
  • Diversifying the housing market
  • Right homes in the right places
  • Identifying appropriate sites for development
  • Coordination of infrastructure
  • Responding to housing need
  • Importance of local plans
  • Transparency around land ownership
  • Speeding-up rates of build-out
  • Compulsory purchase powers

What a change from previous government statements.

For example, alongside the Summer Budget in July 2015, David Cameron’s then Government published a productivity plan that was used as the basis for announcing further changes to planning in England. Here, the planning system was characterised as “one of the most significant constraints facing the economy” (Cameron having previously described planners, among others, as “enemies of enterprise”). Cue more “planning freedoms” – more churn in planning regulations, resulting in more complexity and confusion.

As we noted at the time, the Government could instead have recognised that planning is a key component in the efficient functioning of successful towns and cities, and so critical to boosting the UK’s lagging productivity.

The aim behind our programme of work on the value of planning hasn’t been to present planning or planners as perfect. Rather, it’s been to promote a more balanced (and more evidence-based) debate on planning. For that, we’ve argued, it’s essential to avoid simplistic “explanations” of what’s gone wrong and instead acknowledge the multifaceted nature of the problems in housing markets.

Despite its limitations, the White Paper is perhaps to be welcomed most for establishing a better debate on housing and planning in England.

With last week’s White Paper, government in England has seemingly sought to move on from past policy failure, including some positive recognition that (better resourced) planning is critical for more and better development.

In this respect, the White Paper brings England more into line with the mature debates on housing and the role of planning in the other UK nations.

Many barriers remain – barriers that the Institute will continue to call attention to – but now it’s up to planners to show what they can do to deliver more affordable housing for all.

Dr Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris

Deputy Head of Policy and Research, RTPI