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Political uncertainty requires a new approach to tackling the housing crisis

16 June 2017 Author:

Many commentators have used the word “uncertainty” to describe the fallout from the general election. True, the immediate future of the Housing White Paper is less clear and we do not know much yet about how the new planning and housing minister intends to drive forward the momemtum to solve the housing crisis. 

‘Planning reform’ was never going to resolve the housing crisis, because ‘planning restrictions’ were never its cause.

But does solving the housing crisis really depend so much on national policy? Is more planning deregulation the answer? Or how about land value capture or making who owns land more transparent?

There are two problems with this.

Firstly, as we argued in our paper on Better Planning for Housing Affordability (February 2017), much policy under successive governments in England has had the wrong focus.

‘Planning reform’ was never going to resolve the housing crisis, because ‘planning restrictions’ were never its cause.

As the title of the UK Government’s White Paper "Fixing Our Broken Housing Market" (February 2017) suggests, we’ve overlooked the complex range of reasons why we aren’t building enough homes.

Secondly, we may have somewhat over-estimated the importance of policy.

Clearly, policy is important, and the RTPI has been heavily engaged in these debates. But there’s hardly been a lack of policy in housing and planning. If anything, the problem has been too much policy.

In England alone, there have been at least 60 policies, initiatives and funds announced just with respect to housing under the current Government (that is, since May 2015).

Previous governments were prone to the much of the same policy hyper-activity. And yet the housing crisis has got worse. Indeed, too much policy change has led to increasing complexity and costs, but not enough real help for development.

Perhaps it’s time to be a bit more realistic about what policy can achieve. Central government can only set a more or less helpful framework, important though this is. It can’t (typically) directly ensure local housing development itself. That’s ultimately for local councillors, planners, developers and communities.

Shouldn’t these groups be more in the lead of finding the answers to our housing crisis?

Indeed, planners may already have many of the answers. What we need to do is find better ways to share these answers.

Local authorities are getting back into the house building business – not because of national government policy, but more in spite of it.

Take the issue of who builds houses. The focus on ‘planning reform’ has distracted from the fact that the ongoing gap between housing supply and demand is equivalent to the house building that used to be done by local authorities before the 1980s.

Looked at this way, the solution to housing crisis may not actually be that complex: we need local authorities to build more houses.

And actually, local authorities are getting back into the house building business – not because of national government policy, but more in spite of it.

Research commissioned by the RTPI and the National Planning Forum, being conducted by UCL, is currently looking at how local authorities are delivering housing. The results will be available later this year.

This is just one example of how planners and others are working to resolve the housing crisis, rather than waiting for ‘perfect’ policies from government.

We’re also preparing to publish research supported by our South West region on the role that large-scale housing developments can play in improving housing affordability – schemes that are often only made possible by proactive public sector-led planning and public funding.

This prompts the question, what if we developed policy in a different way?

Rather than beginning with theoretical preconceptions (for example, planning has caused the housing crisis), let’s start with what works on the ground, in local communities across the UK and Ireland, and use this as the basis for better policy.

Professional bodies such as the RTPI are ideally placed in this respect. We have the experience and expertise of 24,000 members to draw on.

Let’s also ensure that this best practice and the lessons learned are shared more widely among practitioners and decision-makers.

This is what we want to do through our Better Planning programme, starting with how planning can help to provide affordable housing, make city-regions more productive, and respond to climate change.

We want members to get involved – to share case studies and best practice with us, and to help shape better policy for planning and beyond.  

We can complain about what’s wrong with government policy, or we can do more to demonstrate what actually works on the ground and how policy could support more of it.

For this, we need your help.

Further details can be found at: