This is a watershed moment to build the homes we need for the next 100 years – let’s seize it

Jonathan Layzell weighs up the pros and cons of the government’s planning reforms

Jonathan Layzell (1)

In August, the government set the wheels in motion on a planning overhaul that it hailed as "the most significant reform to housing policy in decades". The Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, launched a planning white paper, accompanied by a raft of other more immediate changes to speed up the ‘sluggish’ planning system. At Stonewater, we have reviewed the proposals and submitted our views to the government. What do we think?

The first thing to say is that we absolutely support the government ambition to create places which stand the test of time. We see the potential to build homes now that we are proud of in 30, 50, 100 years’ time. We are also very mindful that achieving this should not mean sacrificing care of, or responsibility for, our environment.

Focus on affordability

There is much to welcome in the government’s ideas. For instance, the introduction of a zonal planning system to allow more land to be allocated for housing – especially in high-demand areas – could lead to hundreds of thousands more much-needed homes. Also, a simplification of the calculation of local housing need, ensuring it is tied to affordability, would be an important step.

"The delivery of more social housing reduces pressures on housing need overall and aids affordability. Ensuring a good mix of tenures across all sites helps ensure quick occupation rates and leads to an acceleration in the rate of building homes"

In addition, we strongly support a more streamlined approach and a quicker decision-making process – especially with the emphasis on digitisation and the earlier involvement of local people in setting Local Plan parameters. By moving the democratic process forward, we will stop endless arguing about whether homes are built or not. Instead, that energy can be harnessed in a much more collaborative way to help shape beautiful developments in the communities we serve.

Impact on most vulnerable

Although there are good reasons to be cheerful, we are also concerned about some potentially significant negative impacts on the most vulnerable in society. These individuals have the greatest housing need and require social rented homes, particularly at a time where the economy is fragile due to COVID-19.

For instance, the proposal to increase site size threshold for affordable housing requirements from the current 10 to 40 or 50 homes will significantly undermine the delivery of affordable housing – especially in rural communities. The delivery of more social housing reduces pressures on housing need overall and aids affordability. Ensuring a good mix of tenures across all sites helps ensure quick occupation rates and leads to an acceleration in the rate of building homes. This is something that mono-tenure developments, which will be the result of the proposals to change the threshold for affordable housing, can never do.

Support for SMEs

The government’s aim in increasing the affordable housing threshold is to provide greater opportunity for SME builders. We wholeheartedly support this ambition. Indeed, it is something we are already successfully delivering on, such as at the 42-home development in Keinton Mandeville with Galion Homes. The proposed change will impact the ability to deliver mixed and balanced communities, will result in higher land values (as prices are forced up by developers able to deliver more market sale homes) and no more delivery for SMEs.

An alternative approach to support SMEs would be the involvement of a housing association partner at an early stage in a project. This helps to de-risk developments for SMEs by achieving a level of commitment and funding which helps enable infrastructure and renders the builder less reliant on the fluctuations in the housing market.

"Local authorities should have the flexibility to decide on the mix of tenures which will meet the needs of local communities, rather than to hit a nationally prescribed target"

The government has also proposed that its new First Homes product should be included as part of the overall homeownership mix. We support anything that increase access to affordable home ownership. However, steps should be taken to ensure these homes are not smaller or lower-specification in order to address the requirement for a 30% discount to the buyer. We also believe that local authorities should have the flexibility to decide on the mix of tenures which will meet the needs of local communities, rather than to hit a nationally prescribed target.

Infrastructure Levy

If the government does decide to replace the current Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy with a single Infrastructure Levy (as again referenced in the Social Housing White Paper), we support this, so long as the levy is used to support the affordable housing requirements identified in updated Local Plans. At present, Section 106 is responsible for around half of all affordable homes. This level of provision must be the minimum starting point for the replacement approach, with affordable housing funds ring-fenced to prevent provision being eroded. Due to the infrastructure requirements of new developments – carbon-neutral affordable homes, schools, roads and healthcare – it is unrealistic to expect the levy to deliver everything. Additional funding will be needed.

The government’s proposals are a potential watershed moment in terms of the approach we take to building the sustainable homes we need for future generations. We look forward to working with the government and others in the industry to develop the measures needed to seize that opportunity.

Jonathan Layzell is Executive Director – Development at Stonewater

You can read the full article on Inside Housing