Getting housing right

With a new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in place, our Chief Executive Mick Sweeney takes a look at what James Brokenshire’s priorities should be in his new role…

 

Sajid Javid almost made it to two years in post at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) before his promotion to one of the Great Offices of State earlier this week. He leaves behind a strong legacy, grounded in last year’s Housing White Paper, Fixing Our Broken Housing Market.

The temptation of all incomers is to make their own mark, but is that what James Brokenshire, newly appointed Secretary of State at MHCLG, needs to do? Together with my colleagues at Radian, we’ve sought to identify what his top priorities should be if he is to get the homes built – in particular the right homes – that the country desperately needs.

 

It’s time to talk about the Green Belt

One area in which he could make an early and positive impression would be to encourage a debate on the Green Belt. No one disagrees that the areas around our major cities and towns need to be protected – the benefits of having green spaces are well known and preventing urban sprawl is important – but much of this land should not be classified as such. Intensive farmland, brownfield sites and former industrial land can all be classed as Green Belt under current definitions.

Opening up sections of the Green Belt that serve no environmental, ecological or leisure purpose would benefit everybody: reduced commutes, increased productivity and more affordable homes to house those in desperate need. At the moment 13% of English land is Green Belt, yet only 8.8% is built on. Releasing a fraction of Green Belt land would dramatically improve the chances of delivering the Government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year, and give hope to millions for a better housing future.

 

Back to basics

That would be a blockbuster start. But a lot of what needs doing doesn’t require grand gestures or ripping up planning guidance: it simply requires existing processes to be adhered to and enforced. For example, ensuring that local authority planning departments expedite the process of developing Local Plans, preparing and reviewing them on a timely and orderly basis and ensuring that sufficient sites are allocated to meet objectively assessed need. Not prevaricating over the Green Belt or, conversely, rushing to get Plans in front of inspectors to avoid having to confront more challenging methodology.

Plans that are developed with one eye on those who already own their own homes rarely reflect the needs of those without a decent roof over their head. Our 2018 Manifesto, issued to all candidates in the recent local elections across our region of operation, calls upon local councillors to recognise the housing crisis, to become cheerleaders for new homes and to stand up for affordable housing.

 

Better use of S106 funding

Our manifesto also focuses on a growing problem – and one that the new Secretary of State could review urgently: the unspent S106 funds that local councils have which should be building new homes. Too many councils are sitting on this money, frustrating attempts by housebuilders to get started. And with a bit of imagination, working in partnership with housing associations like Radian, local councils could leverage those monies to deliver even more affordable homes.

 

Focus on policies that work, and forget those that don’t

The introduction of the ‘voluntary’ Right to Buy for housing association tenants was a surprise move by the Cameron government in 2015. Having seen the impact of Right to Buy on social housing stock in recent years and the failure to replace ‘like for like’, perhaps now is the time for Mr Brokenshire to quietly drop a project still in its infancy and one that would never see more people housed appropriately.

On all these points, and many more, the Secretary of State will find an industry that is eager and ready to engage.