Brave, probably politically unattractive decisions are needed, if the UK is to solve its housing crisis and increase the construction of new homes. Garden villages, new towns, construction on the green belt and more centrally imposed decisions could all play their part, according to participants at a strategic housing debate this week.
The worry is that, with an election coming up, few decisions will be taken for the next year. And with politicians desperate to appeal to the masses, strategic thinking may be sidelined for popular soundbites. However, the panellists at the annual strategic land debate agreed the scale of the problem is such that every avenue needs to be pursued. The event, hosted by law firm Hogan Lovells and arranged by the International Building Press, drew together the thoughts of Nick Taylor, head of planning at Carter Jonas; Emma Cariaga, head of residential development at British Land; Bill Hughes, managing director of Legal & General Property; and Waheed Nazir, director or regeneration at Birmingham City Council.
“We’ve had planning by appeal,” said Taylor of the recent National Policy Planning Framework regime. “We have to go back to regional planning.” A macro approach was the only solution, he insisted, as nobody had the commitment at a local level, to take decisions based on the broader good. “It seems to me that’s the only way. We remain a nation of NIMBYs – people don’t vote for growth.”
One exception is Birmingham City Council, where a shortage of land means the authority is taking tough decisions, in order to meet housebuilding targets. Nazir said the city had identified an upcoming need for at least 80,000 homes, but has capacity within its existing boundaries for just 45,000. Having reviewed its local green belt, it saw opportunities to build on those parts of it that are not high quality, attractive landscape – and is now seeking high level approval to do so. “We’re still short of our target,” said Nazir, who is now asking neighbouring local authorities to conduct the same exercise, in order to give up poor quality green belt land to housing development.
Alternative forms of tenure all have a part to play in meeting the demand. Hughes warned that current interest in the growing private rented sector was not a panacea. “If you believe in build to rent, you have to get through the planning system. We’re looking for a new type of product that’s going to take some time to procure.” Nazir said his authority was intervening directly in the market, and is building 1,500 homes for private rent, but noted such projects need a different treatment by planners, in order to help them succeed. “The challenge for us is how you negotiate your scheme.”
New towns, or the less aptly named garden cities, may also help meet housing need, but cannot be delivered overnight. Cariaga, who spent time working on the massive Ebbsfleet project, said that development had stalled due to other areas such as Stratford taking the attention of developers, but its time would come. Panel members wondered why the planning of the new HS2 rail line did not include a new settlement somewhere along its route, as it presented the ideal opportunity to deliver a town with immediate transport infrastructure.
There are also concerns that the current situation in the UK, where landowners can negotiate much of the value uplift due to nearby infrastructure projects such as HS2, was unhelpful. The French system provides for only a modest overage to be paid to landowners, with the balance in the value uplift of sites being subsequently ploughed back into paying for new transport infrastructure. And Philip Barnes, group land and planning director at Barratt, noted during a Q&A session that previous new town settlements in the UK had paid landowners the current value of their land as it stood, not any hope value; the lower cost of the land was a key consideration in helping to fund new developments.