As the turmoil around Brexit descends into potentially a full blown last-ditch fight between judges and the Government, it’s tempting to turn to the housing sector for some light relief, or at least perhaps a sense of reality.
The big problem with the ‘B’ word of course is that it still, after three years, revolves around a lot of supposition on both sides.
One camp holding that everything will be fine and dandy, and that any so-called economists proclaiming empty shelves and huge job losses are scaremongers, and many on the other wing convinced that the vote to Leave is a giant scam being run by ‘disaster capitalists’ who will profit from the UK’s hardship.
A major structural problem has been thrown up which shouldn’t be lost in the political clamour
Major structural problem
Of course the truth may end up lying somewhere between the two, but grey isn’t a very fashionable colour these days, most seem to prefer a shade closer to black or white.
Most do also seem to accept there may be a short-term financial hit if we have No Deal though, and this could mean that there is even less money around for one big route to delivering the 300,000 homes per year target.
In the interests of pinpointing actual constraints in our own sector rather than focusing on imagined scenarios, I think it’s valid to look at one of the biggest obstacles to our biggest short-term problem, namely the housing crisis.
A major structural problem has been thrown up in local authorities, which shouldn’t be lost in the political clamour.
Do the minimum
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPR) has been introduced to solve several problems in the planning system, many of which have been cited as reasons for hold-ups in getting housing schemes onto sites.
However, while councils remain increasingly cash-strapped, with dwindling revenues from housing thanks to Right to Buy, the NPPR’s standardised method for calculating the minimum housing levels in each council (introduced in 2018) has unfortunately led to a ‘do the minimum’ approach according to some commentators.
Protecting the green belt
Apparently a particular problem in the north, possibly due to the standard method being based around affordability, with Leeds being cited as one particularly worrysome case, with 32 green belt sites having been removed from the city’s development plan.
Greater Manchester has also seen planned housing delivery reduced – by 26,000 homes – and according to planning consultant Lichfields, their unmet need is being moved to other authorities to pick up.
Stoke is another troubling case, the council having reportedly used the standard method of targets to defend a planning appeal against new development, saying it was already delivering what was required.
This situation, effectively enabling a reduction in action, will not only mean that business will be reduced for housebuilders, but also that the skewed relationship between demand and supply will continue in neighbourhoods that sorely need it fixed.
It could see the North-South divide become more acute when it comes to communities not seeing enough of the affordable homes they need built in their local area, versus those who are further south.
On the other hand however, councils like Doncaster are consulting on local plans which propose building at levels way higher (60 per cent in Doncaster’s case) than the Government’s standard method calculates.
Lichfields’ research shows that while 16 per cent of authorities across the UK with local plans prepared are looking to do less than the ‘standard method’ calculation for housing in the NPPF, a reassuring 34 per cent are aiming to surpass it.
But the plot thickens further, with more expensive areas proposing to deliver less housing than is required in many cases, bringing down the overall national picture.
Even Sadiq Khan’s targets in London would mean a shortfall that would mean the rest of the UK would need to uplift delivery by 20 per cent to hit the 300,000 (rather than 14 per cent currently).
Lichfields says that ‘if regional variations were replicated’ across the UK (outside London), we would only be increasingly delivery by 5.4 per cent, way off the 14 per cent required.
A patchy picture
There is clearly a very patchy delivery picture across the UK, and a big gap to meet in providing what’s needed – possibly largely the result of introducing a no-doubt well-intentioned minimum standard.
It’s laudable the Government has taken a strongly coordinated approach to trying to address this with a single-system, but without a level of enforcement that means authorities are helped to go beyond the targets, was it doomed to fail?
One has to wonder whether whoever remains in the Housing Ministry will ever extricate themselves from the Brexit mess in order to fully focus on this, but they need to, to some degree, before too many schemes are shelved.
The outcome of No Deal may be about to become very real, but at the moment, there are other realities which are even more pressing for housing delivery.