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BLOG: Planning for the right homes in the right place

With the Chancellor widely expected to put housing at the heart of this week’s Autumn Budget, delivering the homes we desperately need has never been higher up the agenda. The Government’s recent consultation – Planning for the right homes in the right places – is the latest attempt to fix our broken housing market. But will it deliver what the industry needs or see us continuing to go around in circles? Jonathan Dyke, Strategic Land Director at IM Land asks the question.

The main focus of the consultation is the proposed standardised method of calculating housing need, based on ONS household projections multiplied by an affordability factor for each local authority. This objective approach would, it is argued, end disputes between developers and local authorities about housing need and lead to fewer Local Plans being thrown out by inspectors. While it sounds sensible, what concerns me is that this standard assessment will lead to discussions around housing need becoming detached from economic growth aspirations. The assessment reinforces the areas where job growth has been historically greatest and where the economic pull continues to be strong, namely London, going against the aspiration to rebalance the economy with a strong Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse. The indicative numbers already show some quite staggering increases in housing targets in London and the South East (so much so that a cap of 40% growth is proposed) while other areas in the midlands and further north seeing a reduction in numbers.

While a standard method could provide the minimum number of homes, there need to be checks and balances in place to ensure that housing and economic policies align. Local Plan Inspectors will need guidance to enable them to reach sensible and transparent conclusions about the number of homes needed to support economic growth – and the development industry, like all interested parties, should not lose the ability to challenge them! Without sufficient scrutiny, and given the downturn in levels of housing need resulting from the proposed approach, there is a danger that low levels of housing supply could constrain economic growth. This would be fatal in areas such as Greater Birmingham which West Midlands Mayor Andy Street is pushing as the engine of the UK’s growth.

Quite rightly the consultation document points out that it’s not just about agreeing the right number of homes but it’s also the different size, type, tenure and range. That’s exactly why at IM Land we have a varied portfolio of strategically located sites across the Midlands. Establishing the mix of housing required in an area is complex and should be informed not just by housing formation assessments but also take into account market demand and the changing ways in which we are living. In a similar vein, plans to apportion housing numbers to the neighbourhood plan level fail to take account of the differing levels of need within local communities and of the sustainability benefits of particular sites.

I agree with the Government that we need greater transparency around viability assessments. This would help to address the accusation that they’re used to avoid infrastructure and affordable housing contributions. Publishing a database of viability assessments and making them professionally accredited could help with this. Reporting on how section 106 monies are spent would help to highlight the role of the development industry in funding and delivering affordable housing and local infrastructure.

All of these proposed measures need to take place alongside wider Government commitments to fund and support the housing industry and address difficult issues such as the skills shortage in the construction industry. Above all we need to build quality homes that are well-planned and deliverable. This is no truer than in Greater Birmingham where we’re doing our bit to identify locations for new sustainable developments that can deliver homes for everyone. Taking a more standardised approach to planning for new homes could have its benefits but we must ensure that any reforms don’t undermine the region’s economic renaissance and contribution to the UK’s success.