The Housing White Paper - Group Leader's comment - 8 February 2017

Cllr Marianne Overton

Dear friends and colleagues,

As you may have seen, the Government has finally published its long awaited Housing White Paper, Fixing our broken housing market.

Thank you for your contributions over the past few months, seeking to help the Government to get this right. I had the opportunity to speak with both the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Housing Minister on this topic. During our discussions I emphasised the need for everyone to have access to a home they can afford - whether that be through buying or renting; the importance of infrastructure and services; and cautioned against building for buildings sake.

The Government has seemed obsessed with building for building's sake for too long, and sadly, this trend looks set to continue. Many of our members discussed the way in which the local plans have unrealistically high figures of supposed housing "demand" in rural areas.

These are based on the hope of return to the boom years seen prior to the economic crisis. The White Paper sets out to redraw local plans deemed not up to date or accurate in terms of projections. However, it's clear that there is only one direction that projections are expected to go - up. When I raised with the Minister that it is often the developer, rather than the council, standing in the way of house building, the steer was clearly "that's a problem for councils to deal with".  We have called for powers of compulsory purchase or taxes to reduce land banking. But if that is accompanied by a "stick", we may find ourselves struggling with the cost of building houses to meet an unrealistic demand, in places without jobs, infrastructure nor adequate services.

As reflected in the paper, the ministers do recognise the need for more infrastructure, and have a £2.3bn fund, so we shall see if it matches the increased need. There is no suggestion of help to provide more services as councils are increasingly expected to move towards fiscal autonomy.

The high cost of housing compared to incomes is recognised, with rents taking around half of household incomes, especially in London and the south-east. The paper does not propose managing rents, nor reducing demand from the rest of the world. Instead, cheaper modular build, sometimes known as flat-pack DIY is back in vogue. Also there is likely to be an extension of the help-to-buy schemes; public subsidies that are most easily available to the wealthier members of our society. An interesting tool is to diversify the market, to give smaller developers a look-in with finance as well as encouraging housing associations, councils and self-build.

One more positive move is that the manifesto promise of forcing councils to sell their most valuable houses to fund right to buy of housing association homes, is rightly not included this time. 

Officers at the LGA are currently analysing the paper and will be drafting our consultation response, however in the meantime they have published a statement. Unsurprisingly, the LGA are calling on behalf of members for a properly resourced planning system and powers to ensure we can meet the targets facing councils. This is an area of work that is critical to get right. If councils do not receive adequate funding or powers we will be hamstrung by developers and our residents will be paying the cost.

As always, I would welcome your views and initial responses on the White Paper so we can feed these into the LGA's work on this. 

9 February 2017