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Trying to make sense of housing policy in England

10 November 2016 Author: Kelvin MacDonald


Communities Secretary Sajid Javid announced at the Conservative Party Conference that a Housing White Paper would be published this year.  (The likely date may well be around the Autumn Statement on 23rd November.)

That fact in itself is welcome. The last government document that set out national (English) housing policy in a comprehensive way was the White Paper - Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable - in July 2007.

Since then we have had a succession of major and minor changes of policy, new initiatives, abandoned initiatives, new funds, abandoned sources of funding, prospectuses, calls for expressions of interest, official reports, evaluations and... much more.

This constant change to housing policy continues with, for example, the introduction of the benefit cap on 7th November and the gradual introduction of Universal Credit looking to have more impact on levels of homelessness than any amount of changes to the ability of affordable housing through the planning system could ever do. Some of these changes are positive – notably, currently, Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill.

All these changes to housing policy take place against a background of a stark and deepening housing crisis in England (the other parts of the UK have their own housing issues - and sometimes deal with them in more progressive ways - but the forthcoming White Paper will only cover England).

It is a crisis of affordability with average UK house prices 6.1 times average earnings; it is a crisis of homelessness with 17,720 households accepted as being in priority need in the second quarter of this year; it is a crisis of lack of supply with a recent House of Lords report on ‘Building more homes’ suggesting that, to meet demand and have a moderating effect on house prices, at least 300,000 homes a year need to be built for the foreseeable future but with just 141,490 started in 2015; and it is a crisis that is visible in the number of rough sleepers with official figures showing 3,569 people sleeping on our streets last Autumn – but with unofficial counts being much higher.

Against this background, the forthcoming White Paper is welcome in the promise it brings of putting forward progressive policies that will get to the heart of the complex strands of the crisis (50 years as a practicing planner and I haven't lost my naive optimism).

However, on a more basic level, the White Paper is to be welcomed simply because it may tell us exactly what the Government's housing policy is - and equally importantly how its different components relate to each other.

In eager anticipation of the White Paper - and in preparation for a talk I was giving - I decided that it might be handy if I tried to map out all the parts of the Government's existing policy. Easy, I thought, I'll knock that off in an afternoon. Three days' work later I landed up with a document that ran to 24 pages and contained no less than 60 policies, initiatives and funds - and, I knew, is still not comprehensive.

The policies and initiatives listed range from stated targets to help to buy; from the spare room supplement – the bedroom tax to me and you) to stamp duty; from diversifying the housebuilding industry to overcrowding and from viability to housing zones.

So what have I learnt in undertaking this exercise? First, how difficult it is to keep up with government scatter-gun additions and deletions from policy. Second, how many initiatives seem to be left hanging with delayed decisions on consultations and lack of apparent responses to, for example, calls for expressions of interest. Another benefit of the forthcoming White Paper may be that it tidies up a lot of these loose ends.

Third, that the plethora of policies and initiatives do not seem to form a comprehensive approach to the housing crisis. This does not come as any great surprise but what is surprising is the extent to which this is true.  Here’s hoping the White Paper will make some sense of all this.

The final lesson is that my next mission, if I care to accept it, is to bring together all the evaluations of the Government’s housing policy that exist because my overall sadness stems from the lack of impact that these 60 policy components appear to have had on tackling this desperate crisis.

Editor's note: The RTPI has recently published its own recommendations for addressing the housing crisis in England.

Kelvin MacDonald

Kelvin MacDonald

Kelvin MacDonald FAcSS FRTPI MCIH FRSA is a Senior Visiting Fellow in the Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge and, until recently, was on the Board of Trustees of Shelter.