Opinion

Housing White Paper: Why industry must play its part

14 February 2017

The long-awaited and much-anticipated Housing White Paper doesn’t have the fireworks we’d been led to expect – partly because numerous new measures and policy had already been announced beforehand. But it still has some much-needed and sensible proposals aimed at stoking supply.

Short of radical measures such as CPO-ing National Trust property or the Army building homes on seized council land, the diabolically dysfunctional housing market can’t be fixed overnight.

The problem is threefold: not enough local authorities planning for the homes they need; house building that is simply too slow; and a construction industry that is dominated by a few big players.

Just 10 companies build out 60% of the market. This is resulting in the construction of 100,000 fewer homes than we need every year and the unsustainable situation where, as the ACE’s Julian Francis points out, it takes a first-time buyer couple 24 years to save up enough money for a deposit without family assistance and the ludicrous scenario whereby the average London home now earns £10 an hour more than the average London worker living in it.

The government has clearly listened and watered down some of its dafter policies, such as the demand on sites for 20% starter homes, allowing instead a wider form of low-cost housing. It provides a reality check on home ownership and makes some positive noises about planning support for the private rented sector. There’s some assistance to try to tempt smaller players back into the market – let’s hope it’s enough.

Industry must play its part too in fixing the housing problem, by coming up with new approaches and innovative funding models to help councils deliver on new homes and to build faster and with better quality.

But what also comes through in the paper is mounting frustration with the housing sector. And who, for once, can blame the politicians? Big house builders have been bailed out by government in the bad times but have had no compunction about “parking” land with planning permission or relying too much on overseas labour.

There’s no detail in the White Paper, but the government says it wants to examine how schemes set up by big infrastructure projects like Crossrail can be replicated in housing to force the industry to train more people. That is welcome.

As recent reports have highlighted, some house builders have taken advantage of a seller's market. Poor workmanship and reluctance to put it right were highlighted in a report in the summer from an All-Party Parliamentary Group of MPs and in news reports since – all perpetuating an image of construction we’re trying to get away from. Add to that the growing issues with leaseholds (see Chris Blythe) and it looks like the industry is ripping off its customers.

The government nods to these issues in the document, but that is all. These shoddy practices must be tackled. We need to up supply but not at any cost.

Denise Chevin, editor

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