Lyons Review – loud roar or polite meow?

lionAfter participating in some of the discussion on the Lyons Review of Housing, submitting some thoughts and seeing the interest generated by the review, I was keen to see what would come out of it. Would it be any different? Would it address the difficult issues? Would it be radical? Well the final report has now been published, so you can make up your own mind whether it delivers on its promise of “Mobilising across the nation to build the homes our children need“. For me it makes some clear statements, some interesting policy changes and does take a different approach, to some extent. It’s not as radical as some would have liked, it doesn’t say much about social housing and perhaps doesn’t go far enough on questions of affordability. But it is at least a clear statement of policy, a comprehensive attempt to address our housing crisis, the first such statement that we have had since the Barker Review. So it is to be applauded for that and is indeed a decent starting point, with clear targets.

The following paragraph is from the text of an email sent out by the Lyons Housing Review and neatly sums up the issues at the heart of the challenge that the report is attempting to address:

We face the biggest housing crisis in a generation, because for decades we have failed to build the homes we need. The consequences of this are widely felt with house prices now 8 times average incomes, rental affordability stretched, increased overcrowding and the impact of house price inflation on national economic management. We simply have to do better, not only because our children and grandchildren need the homes we should be providing now, but because greater house building will make a direct contribution to national economic growth. Housing must become a priority for the nation once again (Lyons housing Review).

The report itself is easy to read and presented in a clear and concise manner, with a useful summary for those that don’t wish to read the full 180 pages! The Roadmap for Delivery sets out the different steps needed to deliver within the timeframe and is a useful guide to what needs to be done and how quickly. Again, it comes across as a practical document, with clear indicators for politicians and civil servants to follow and clear targets against which progress can be measured. My initial thoughts on the report are set out below.

On page 15 the report identifies what for me is one of the biggest contradictions of housing policy and that is the lack of political energy given to an issue where there is general consensus about the existence of a problem and even a crisis. According to the report housing has not been seriously addressed in party manifestos since the 1960s and 1970s – how can that be the case when we have known for years that we are not building enough homes, that housing affordability is getting worse and that young people in particular are finding it harder to access decent housing? The rest of Chapter 1 provides a pretty good summary of the problems we face and why – basically we don’t prioritise housing politically, don’t build enough homes, don’t release enough land for housing, don’t provide enough choice, don’t provide the support infrastructure needed and what we do provide is unaffordable and lacking in quality – I think that about sums it up!

The issue of leadership is top of the agenda – doing something about the housing crisis requires strong leadership at national and local level, it means government and councils will need to prioritise the issue, alongside education, crime, immigration and health, something we haven’t seen for many years. But that’s what it will take and the report looks to government to be strong and to provide councils and communities with the powers and funding they need to deliver the homes required in their area. It also delivers yet another attack on our planning system, identifying it as one of the reasons we don’t build enough homes. Now this may be true, but only because successive governments have constantly tinkered with the system without any real understanding of what the problem is!

Anyway, back to the key points of the report, and there are many. I’m not going to try to cover everything or be comprehensive here, but will pick out some of the more interesting ideas, or the ones that leave me slightly confused.

Firstly, this idea that that councils should be responsible for identifying sufficient land for housing to meet need in their area. I thought this was exactly what the current system of strategic housing market assessments and local development frameworks was supposed to deliver on? Admittedly it has failed in areas of greatest need, but still it’s a system that exists. As far as I can tell, from an initial read of the report, the proposal is to tighten this up, giving councils greater controls over land assembly and site preparation, along with the threat of intervention from the planning inspectorate if they fail to plan properly to meet housing need. A welcome proposal, with many councils stalling and failing at the moment, this may just give them the kick up the backside they deserve. Not quite a return to the regional and national targets we need, but a step in the right direction. Of course the devil is in the detail of identifying need and agreeing targets.

The idea of Housing Growth Areas and New Homes Corporations is another interesting approach, which mirrors some of the national approach to jobs growth, through designated growth areas where councils can seek power, resources and funding to deliver homes at the scale that is needed. A new form of Development Corporation but with a focus on housing – it will be interesting to see if local councils opt for this idea should they have the opportunity in the future and what incentives they would be given to make it worthwhile.

The return of sub regional planning is most welcome, otherwise how else will cities like Bristol meet the demand for housing? The notion of local councils working together to put together a Strategic Housing Market Plan for the sub region is to be welcomed but I do wonder whether or not it will happen where it is most needed. The report makes particular mention of ‘badly constrained’ cities like Bristol, where the time spent negotiating with neighbouring authorities could be significantly reduced. A potentially important change in approach which could benefit Bristol in the future if introduced.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, but entirely expected, is the lack of any policy to increase the ability of councils to borrow more against housing revenue accounts, enabling more council homes to be built. At the moment, nationally there are plans to build 5-6,000 new council homes per year over the next 5 years, compared to 200,000 per year at the peak in 1968 – pathetic but clearly no longer the answer as far as politicians are concerned. Many have asked for the borrowing cap on local authorities to be increased so they can build more, but the proposal in the report does not quite go that far, they suggest there is scope for councils to bid for more flexibility upon delivery of a decent business case. Alternatively they can propose to share borrowing ability not being used by another council. For me, this just doesn’t go far enough, it continues the perception that councils can’t be trusted to be financially sensible. Again it also doesn’t go far enough on Right to Buy – with proposals for a review of whether or not it is meeting its objectives rather than any real acknowledgement of the constraints this puts on the ability of councils to provide social housing for those most in need when the spectre of Right to Buy is always there, hanging over them and reducing the stock they have available.

The need to invest in homes for social rent is raised by the report but it puts off any solutions until austerity measures and the constraints on public spending are a thing of the past or for later review – not good enough, public housing requires public subsidy – housing associations and the private sector cannot be relied upon to fill this gap, and nor should they!

The backing of garden cities and garden suburbs is to be welcomed, using new powers to deliver and provide community benefit, with local councils expected to come forward with proposals. It will be interesting to see if this happens in the areas where housing growth is most needed. Issues of quality and choice are also raised in the report, important considerations often forgotten in the rush to provide numbers.

There are many other recommendations around the role of the volume housebuilding industry, the support and encouragement for more small house builders, the role of housing associations and the role of self and custom build. All important elements of the equation for delivering more housing at an affordable rate where it is most needed.

Having read the report, albeit relatively quickly, my initial thoughts are that it does indeed meet the brief. It provides a good overview of the issues and the challenge we are faced with, it provides clear steps on how we might address those issue and it comes up with some interesting ideas and plans for the future. I was left with the feeling that this was a great piece of work but would only ever make a difference if our politicians are brave enough to tackle the issues head on, make it a priority and provide the leadership on housing that has been sadly lacking for many years. There is a plan there that could work, that needs a bit more radical thinking on some issues but does show a decent amount of ambition. So more of a roar than a meow, let’s just hope our politicians, of whatever party, are willing to show the leadership and ambition we now need to make it happen.

Pick ‘n’ mix housing policy?

380451857_ce9bad11e3_zAs party conference season draws to a close are we any closer to knowing how to deal with the housing crisis? Housing has certainly featured on the agenda and been the subject of much discussion at many fringe meetings, but have any of the parties come close to a comprehensive policy approach? Sadly, my initial conclusion would be that once more politicians have failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem and have instead come up with a whole load of ‘initiatives’ that play at the edges of the issue rather than provide a strategic, co-ordinated and coherent plan. We continue along the lines of a “pick ‘n’ mix” approach to housing policy, where pet projects and short term ‘solutions’ are promoted for electoral gain – appealing to target groups rather than providing solutions for those most in need.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some decent proposals and some that will undoubtedly make a difference to a small number of people. But where’s the plan? From the Tories we got a promise that they would build 100,000 new homes for first-time buyers under 40 which they could buy at 20% below the market rate. An interesting idea perhaps but not one that is going to solve the problem for many! Labour’s announcements were on a grander scale but perhaps lacked a little detail. They talked about building 200,000 homes per year, halting land banking and diversifying the house building industry – all laudable aims but talk is cheap. Where were the policies that many would have expected? The ones that focus on social housing, enabling councils to borrow and build, limiting right to buy options and facing the affordability crisis head on – mostly not there I’m afraid. And so, what have the Liberal Democrats offered us so far on housing? Well perhaps a slightly more comprehensive approach that focuses on building 300,000 homes per year, with new towns and urban extensions as part of the package, more power to local councils to build affordable housing and the ability to suspend right to buy. To be honest they came up with more of what I was expecting from Labour!

We have a housing crisis that means too many people can’t afford to buy or rent decent homes. And on the basis of what we have seen so far from our politicians we can be relatively certain that the comprehensive plans and policies are not going to come from the political parties, so where will the answers come from? We are of course still waiting for the full report from the Lyons Housing Review instigated by Labour, which is due out later this year. But in the meantime there have been a couple of publications that caught my attention. The first, “Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a better future” written by Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson is an excellent attempt to hit back at all those who see planning as the problem and instead takes us back to the pioneers of the planning movement and reminds of what is actually possible when you have “passionate ambition”. The second, “Housing: where’s the plan?” written by Kate Barker is more direct in its criticism, describing our inability to build more housing as the UK’s biggest policy failure. Its focus is on analysing the problem and providing some policy recommendations. Both books are excellent in their own way, they raise some interesting questions, provide a more comprehensive assessment of the problems and suggest some practical solutions.

In Rebuilding Britain the authors talk about access to land and land reform as a critical ingredient of achieving utopia, with smart choices needed along the way. As with the original garden city concept, capturing and redistributing the increase in land values generated by development are seen as central to future large scale development. The characterisation of Britain as a divided nation, as a nation without a plan and  where people are disengaged from politics and planning will resonate with many as some of the major concerns we face as a nation. Their ‘solutions’, or practical steps as they are called in the book, focus on planning and take us through five main areas of change including a fair and efficient society; rebuilding trust; building the homes we need; providing a resilient and low carbon future; and paying for utopia.

Underpinning all of these areas is the need for a new kind of planner, a national plan for England, a new structure for planning and a new kind of government – big change indeed! Quite rightly Ellis & Henderson identify the housing challenge as moving beyond the question of whether we need to build more homes (of course we do), to the question of “where to build them, how we fund them, what the mix is and how do we ensure they are high quality”. Their answer is embedded in a new honesty about the problem, the opportunities and the constraints; about quality not just quantity; and through a varied housing offer including “high-quality social, affordable and market homes”. They do of course focus on ‘well planned new communities’ as a big part of the solution, based on Garden City principles which it is hard to disagree with. But as ever the big question is how you pay for the levels of social housing and infrastructure needed to make these places work. Of course the solution is there, it’s the same as it has always been – capturing the increase in land value for the benefit of the community. That’s the exact same principle as garden cities were based on and it remains the obvious solution now. Indeed it happens to an extent now, through S.106 agreements, Community Infrastructure Levy and planning conditions, but it is ad hoc and prone to difficulties and disagreements over viability. The political acceptability of extracting value from land for the benefit of the community has long been debated but perhaps it is time to revisit this issue with a new debate based on need?

Kate Barker’s book is based on the premise that we need to build more homes at a faster rate but that our ability to do this is held back by competing and vested interests that are inherent in our society and by government failure to address the issues systematically. Instead what we get are short term policies and initiatives that satisfy a few. The dynamics of the housing market perfectly exemplify many of the divisions in our society – the widening gulf in wealth between those who own their home and those that don’t and the increasing inequality between generations that this serves to reinforce. Barker suggests that many would define success in housing terms as “everyone should have access to a decent home at a price they can afford”. Difficult to disagree, but as she explains, the terms are open to extensive interpretation – the difference between need and want for instance?

Barker also addresses the thorny issue of taxing housing when so many people have so much of their wealth already tied up in property. Her solution is a mix of proposals from reforming Stamp Duty, higher council tax bands, and a move to charge Capital Gains Tax on main residence – potentially a rather radical suggestion but one which would help to deliver fairer housing outcomes. In total Barker proposes 11 main policy recommendations, which include providing stronger incentives to local authorities to produce sound housing plans, so they take responsibility for increasing local provision, with greater borrowing powers encouraging them to play a bigger role in land assembly. She also calls for direct financial incentives to those affected by a new development, an attempt to reign in the influence of the Nimbys, which may work but is it the right approach? Barker backs the call for garden cities and urban extensions, with new forms of funding and land assembly, as well as the encouragement of self-build as potentially more acceptable in some areas. Above all what Barker is looking for is a steadier, coherent, long term view of how to manage housing supply to meet housing needs – something I’m sure we can all agree on?

The reasons for our housing crisis are undoubtedly complex and embedded in decades of policy failure. The solutions will also be complicated but need to be built on a coherent plan, that deals with a long term approach to immediate problems and resists the temptation to meddle in short term, pick and mix solutions that satisfy no one!

Time to listen to the ‘silent majority’

DSCN1037Is it time to listen to the ‘silent majority’? That seems to be one of the questions asked in a recent Fabian Society report entitled – Silent Majority: How the public will support a new wave of social housing. The focus of the report is public opposition to new housing as an explanation for why successive governments seem unable to address the growing affordability crisis in UK housing. Lack of public support for new housing, particularly social housing, is often used as a reason for not doing more, for why government shouldn’t be involved and why this is no longer part of what the local state should be focused on. The Fabian report seeks to dispel this myth, suggesting that nearly 60% of people would actually support more social housing and many would be positive about the government playing a key part in provision.

I’m sure this is a report that the current government will ignore, as it certainly doesn’t chime with their approach to social housing, where the state’s role is reducing, with less and less funding available, and reliance for affordable housing provision resting more and more with housing associations and the private sector.

There’s a further strand to the idea of listening to the silent majority and that’s to down play the amount of coverage and credence we give to NIMBYS. How about we stop and consider all those who are currently living in cramped and overcrowded conditions, in unaffordable accommodation, living miles from where they work, still living at home with parents, ‘sofa-surfers’ and others living in unacceptable housing circumstances because they have little choice because they can’t afford the alternatives currently on offer. How often do we hear from them? Sadly it seems that when we do, people in need of affordable and social housing are frequently depicted in a less than positive light, stigmatised by circumstance!

The Fabian report calls for passionate politicians capable of carrying clear messages to the public to change perceptions and to deliver the change we need. What hopes and signs are there that this might happen? Well in the build up to next years general election there’ll probably be lots of promises, indeed the Liberal Democrats have already suggested that local council’s should be able to suspend the Right to Buy in their area to protect existing council stock. A good idea particularly where waiting lists are long and where council’s are building new homes with public money.

But then we have the knee jerk reaction of other politicians to the notion that we should be building more homes – enter Brandon Lewis, Minister for Housing & Planning. Last week as we had the announcement of the winning entry for the Wolfson Garden City Prize the government immediately distanced itself from the proposals (is there an election in the near future then?) writing them off as urban sprawl and top-down imposition of housing on local communities that just won’t work. Indeed if that’s what the winning proposal had suggested I’d have some sympathy with the response, but it’s not. In fact there’s so many good ideas in all the shortlisted entries that the government would do well to take a proper look at them before defining their own policy. The existing process of allowing local councils and communities to decide where housing should and shouldn’t go quite frankly isn’t working in many areas of the country – something has to change.

Everyone seems to agree there is a problem, we’re not building enough homes and housing is getting more unaffordable. Where we don’t seem to agree is on what causes this problem and how to solve it, we get argument and counter argument along with initiative after initiative. But does anyone have a long term solution that will actually create the change we need? A solution that we can begin work on now so the problem doesn’t just get worse and worse – sadly not. Perhaps the election process will draw out more solutions? Although somehow I doubt it.

Garden city or urban extensions?

With all this talk about garden cities, new towns and urban extensions it almost seems like we are coming to some kind of consensus in terms of future house building and how to increase the supply of new homes in the UK. But will it actually come to anything? In previous years we have had promises of eco-towns and urban extensions, with few actually developed in the areas where housing need is greatest and we’ve had politicians promising to address the housing crisis, but policies have fallen well short. But just imagine that some of this actually comes to fruition and proposals for garden cities, besides Ebbsfleet, are actually put forward, and a whole host of urban extensions to existing conurbations are not just proposed but actually planned and developed. The question this raises for me is what does it mean here in Bristol and how will we respond?

In the recent past we have had proposals for urban extensions to Bristol, mostly resisted and removed from plans once the regional/national housing targets were abolished, but to my knowledge there has been little if any consideration of the notion of a new garden city in the area. If we accept there is a housing need locally, and few would dispute this, and we accept that not everyone wants to live in high density inner city areas, then what are the best options for accommodating the Bristol city-region’s housing need? And let’s dispel the myth that all the housing we need in the city region can be accommodated on brownfield land – it can’t. That may be true for the next 5-10 years but is pretty unlikely beyond that and planning for larger scale development takes time so needs to start now, not when we run out of other options.

Has there been any detailed work in recent years to consider the idea of a new town or garden city and would any of our local councils be brave enough to come forward with such proposals now? Would 2-3 extensions to the existing urban area be a better option? These are questions that we may well find ourselves forced to address over the next 10 years, as plans for jobs growth in the sub region continue there needs to be some serious consideration of how to accommodate the growth in new homes that this will generate (as well as addressing an existing backlog).

These are some of the issues the Lyons Review of Housing is considering as reported in The Guardian recently. One of the interesting points to come out of the review so far is this notion of communities having a say in planning but not the right of veto – an important distinction and one that councils and communities seem to forget. All too often local councils are afraid to propose new housebuilding and are resistant to change because of the strength of local opposition. The blame for lack of development then gets attributed to the planning system, when really it is down to politics. Until we can get a better balance between opposition to plans and the need for new homes, then the housing crisis will continue and councils will continue to shy away from proper planning for housing.

So, should we be considering a garden city and/or urban extensions, both have their merits and their problems. To some extent urban extensions are obvious where there are opportunities close to existing centres, where infrastructure is already in place and transport connections available. Garden cities provide the opportunity to start afresh, to provide sustainable communities through proper planning – an exciting opportunity if carefully located and if land assembly and ownership is sensibly organised. Here we need to take note of David Lock’s warnings about the failure of eco-towns and the potential barriers to the development of garden cities. We need to sort out the planning permission and land assembly in a different way to how most developments currently work, otherwise we will surely fail.

Its an exciting and challenging time to be a planner with an interest in housing, there are so many opportunities and innovative ideas out there that could make a difference, but will we embrace them? I’d like to think that with an Elected Mayor and a forward thinking Local Enterprise Partnership, Bristol could really lead the way on some of this. However, too often local ambitions are dampened down by the surrounding authorities and an overwhelming desire to protect and preserve, whilst ignoring the hardship and need this perpetuates. Those that have, protect what they have very successfully, whilst those that don’t have just struggle on through the daily grind.

The solution is to be brave and have a vision, and to hold on to that vision when the going gets tough – something the Bristol Mayor seems to be good at, so maybe there is hope after all? It’s also about taking people on the journey with you, a difficult one when it comes to new housing, but somehow we have to break the mould of resistance and turn it into acceptance and support – that is undoubtedly where our biggest challenge lies, in changing hearts and minds in North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. Is this a role for the LEP or the Mayor, or just maybe a bigger role for the nation state, for government intervention to make it happen? No doubt the run up to the 2015 general election will give us some clues on this as different political groups define their agendas and manifestos, but whatever happens, housing and planning seem set to remain as a key issue on the political agenda for some time to come.