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Would Labour's proposed policies crack the housing crisis ?

27 September 2013

Richard Blyth

I think all of us working in the housing field can celebrate that a party leader has put this key issue right at the top of the political agenda. Ed Miliband together with Hilary Benn have made several key commitments on housing this week. The question is will they work?


Use it or lose it

Labour has proposed that developers holding planning permissions and not developing would be vulnerable to compulsory purchase. The Royal Town Planning Institute has recently called for attention to be given to the failure of land to come forward for development in the right places at the right times and indeed for greater use of compulsory purchase. We celebrate that the Labour team has put the spotlight on how land is often a key barrier to housing delivery. It is great to see alternatives being developed to the current policy which appears to favour competition to sustainable land from less sustainable land in order to lower prices. But is this the right solution? 

We do not yet know details, and we would greatly appreciate the opportunity to work with Labour to work up some solutions. I would worry that instigating a lengthy CPO process after land has been permitted for say 3 years would not hurry things along.

Using legal means requires quanta that can be legally defined. So not surprisingly the proposal centres on land with planning permission. But this is the tip of the iceberg. The real problem with British housing is that there is land in the right places with community buy-in but it doesn’t yet have planning permission. 

The key issue is land which should be getting permission but isn’t. This can be for various reasons. One is that councils cannot grant permission if no agreement has been made to fund infrastructure. This is a huge hurdle which is holding back housing completions all over the show. Another reason is that developers don’t apply for permission – either because land has not yet been released by owners or because they do not need to build any more than they are at present. 

Either way homing in simply on land with permission is missing the trick.

Right to grow

I welcome Labour’s attention to the problems of cross-border planning. Why should you have your housing choices constrained simply because you have the misfortune to live in an unbounded town – to live in Reading rather than York?

Housing need knows no borders. The RTPI’s recent housing paper recommendation 13 stresses the need for planning across borders. But we do mean planning. I am concerned that a right to grow over your borders might ride roughshod over local democracy. What we need are much greater incentives for councils in a housing market area to work together to produce joint plans which all subscribe to. And these plans need to cover a lot more than just housing. We support Hilary Benn’s “passing down power” concept as this will help. We would encourage any future government to fully embrace Lord Heseltine’s* proposals on English devolution. 

New communities

Labour’s third proposal is exciting. Councils would be invited to come forward with proposals for new communities and in return they will get powers to acquire land and put in infrastructure. Our housing paper proposes (in recommendation 14) that much more needs to be done to get councils in the driving seat, leading not only housing but economic growth. We also think that councils and LEPs need to be making much more use of planners’ skills in putting plans together and bidding for funds. But councils need much more support in doing this, including support to undertake CPOs where this would accelerate land assembly or where land owners are seeking excessive premiums, and support in borrowing to construct essential infrastructure. 

You can hear the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP’s speech at the RTPI fringe at the Labour Party conference here.

You can read more about the RTPI’s influence at the party conferences here and the RTPI’s formal response to Labour’s announcements here.

The RTPI is following on from its recent housing paper with forthcoming papers on transport infrastructure, strategic planning and economic growth. We have also commissioned a small project on understanding recent changes in household formation rates and their implications for planning for housing from Peter Williams and Neil McDonald at the University of Cambridge as part of our ongoing research programme.

* The RTPI is privileged to have Lord Heseltine as the speaker at the annual Nathaniel Lichfield Lecture this year.

About Richard Blyth

Richard Blyth is the RTPI’s Head of Policy Practice and Research. Before joining the RTPI two years ago he worked variously in central and local government and in consultancy.

These views are personal views and not necessarily those of the RTPI.