Housing white paper boosts councils’ house-building powers

7 Feb 17

Local authorities are to be given new tools to increase the speed and scale of house building in their area as part of government proposals to tackle the nationwide housing crisis.

The government’s housing white paper, published today, sets out plans to allow local authorities to increase planning fees by 20%, grant them powers to deal with slow developers and offer £25m worth of new funding for “ambitious” authorities working in areas of the greatest need.

It also puts new requirements on local authorities with regards to planning and measures to pick up the slack if their building falls behind target.

Presenting the white paper to parliament today, communities secretary Sajid Javid described the country’s “broken” housing market as one of the biggest barriers to social progress the country faces.

While he said many local authorities work hard to assess and plan for housing needs in their area, others “duck out of the difficult decisions”.

“It’s important all authorities play by the same rules,” he said, announcing proposals to require local authorities to produce a “realistic” housing plan every five years.

He highlighted that currently 40% of local planning authorities do not have an up-to-date plan in place.

Measures will be taken to make these easier to produce, develop a standardised housing needs assessment and build more flexibility into the current rules, but the government warned it would intervene if authorities fail to establish sufficient plans and review them every five years.

Local authorities should also develop strategies to maximise the use of land in their areas, it said, while outlining plans to support brownfield development, ensure the continued protection of green belt land and to use surplus land already in public ownership.

The government will support areas in the greatest need by prioritising them for infrastructure investments, while all authorities will be encouraged to use land more efficiently by avoiding low density builds and building upwards in popular areas or where land is in short supply.

The paper said authorities will be held to account on their house building work. A housing delivery test will check whether authorities are falling behind and there will be consequences if they are, such as a requirement to ensure a 20% buffer of available land.

At the same time, councils could be given sharper tools to speed up house building, including strengthening their ability to withdraw planning permission if development has stalled.

But Johathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, said the paper was a “missed opportunity” to shift power and resources into local authorities and away from developers and central government.

Martin Tett, housing spokesperson at the Local Government Association, agreed that more needs to be done to tackle the housing crisis at a local level.

“This means being able to borrow to invest in housing and keep 100% of the receipts from properties sold through Right to Buy to replace homes and reinvest in building more of the genuine affordable homes our communities desperately need,” he said.

According to Javid, the country is currently between 35,000 and 85,000 homes short of the amount that needs to be built every year to meet demand.

One other proposal to tackle this is to diversify the market, which is currently dominated by just 10 companies who build around 60% of all new homes.

The proposals also envisage shifting the focus away from shared ownership only to a wider range of affordable housing option and putting greater priority on delivering affordable rent and better protections for renters.

These include longer-term tenancies and efforts to enable developers to offer more affordable rent alongside other forms of affordable housing.

Sean Nolan, director of local government at CIPFA, said: “The move away from the long held policy of exclusively promoting home ownership is welcome. Diversifying the market has to be key to future availability.

“There are still vital roles for housing associations and councils in providing affordable housing for rent or to buy, but to do this they must be allowed greater freedom and flexibility to build new homes and replace existing stock reduced under right to buy, something that has been denied them in recent years.

“Social housing is a necessary and long term investment that requires certainty and full control of the assets, so we welcome the opportunity to work with others on driving this forward.”

Terrie Alafat, chief executive at the Chartered Institute of Housing, welcomed this “important shift” in housing policy.

She said: “However our concern is that much housing remains out of reach for a significant number of people and we would like to see the government back up the package with additional funding and resource in the budget.”

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