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Published: 07 February 2017
Area of Law: Planning, Planning Consultancy

The Housing White Paper – worth the wait?

So having waited three months for the Housing White Paper – Fixing our broken housing market, the question is, was it worth the wait?

Presented to Parliament today, the White Paper introduces a number of measures which the government hope will deliver “radical, lasting reform”, providing more homes in the right places, speeding up the planning process, diversifying the housing market and helping people now.

In order to deliver these radical reforms, the government will push all Local Authorities to have local plans in place (something which they have, of course, been pushing with limited success since the National Planning Policy Framework (“NPPF”) was published in 2012). 

In a slight tweak to the system, the government has acknowledged that whilst every authority is to be covered by a plan, this may not be a single local plan and that new combined authorities might be able to develop spatial development strategies.   (This, to me, sounds like paving the way towards a return to some form of regional planning.)

Housing land supply – a standardised approach

A standardised approach to the objective assessment of housing need is to be consulted upon, to ensure a consistent methodological approach to housing land supply, which is to be in place for April 2018.  This should simplify the housing land debate, as will the suggestion that housing land supply positions are agreed on an annual basis and fixed for a one-year period.

There are moves to provide greater clarity and transparency on land ownership and those with an interest in land.  There is also a repeat of the desire to deliver housing on brownfield land, and to increase the density of development in urban areas, particularly around transport hubs. 

Furthermore, a number of proposed changes to the NPPF which, subject to how well received they may be, will likely find their way into the revision to the NPPF later in the year, including setting out the criteria that local authorities should apply when amending Green Belt boundaries.

Neighbourhood Plans

Neighbourhood Plans are to be given greater weight at an earliest stage in proceedings, with the government intending to ensure that local communities “see the benefits of housing growth” in return for accepting that “more housing is needed if future generations are to have the homes they need at a price they can afford.”

To speed up the planning system, local planning authorities will be able to increase planning fees by up to 20% from July 2017 if they commit to investing the additional fee income in their planning departments, which may go some way to address the chronic under resourcing of local authority planning departments.  On the subject of fees, the government will also consult on bringing in fees for planning appeals, which, if adopted, I suspect is unlikely to do much other than deter small scale householder appeals.

Further consultation on the effectiveness of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and s.106 and the implications of shortening the timescale for developers to implement their planning permission from three years to two are also to be considered.

Regeneration of small scale housebuilders

The market share of the volume housebuilders currently stands at almost 60%.  The government is seeking to address this by supporting the regeneration of small scale housebuilders whose numbers were decimated by the recession.   Furthermore, there is a desire to increase the number of skilled tradesmen within the work force (which whilst unsaid might cynically be linked to the potential impact of Brexit on the current work force).  Evolution of the method of housebuilding is also encouraged, with the benefits of offsite construction being praised.  Support too is promised to housing associations and local authorities in a bit to encourage them to build more homes.  All of which is intended to increase the number of houses being built.

In the short term, the delivery of more homes within the private rented sector, and a push towards longer tenancy agreements, and weeding out unscrupulous landlords appears to herald a move away from previous government policy that sought to simply provide everyone with a chance to buy their own home.

Similarly, the previously promised drive to deliver Starter Homes above all other forms of affordable housing has gone, instead Starter Homes are to form part of a mix of affordable housing which developers will be required to deliver, and interestingly the White Paper indicates that the government intend to “amend the NPPF to introduce a clear policy expectation that housing sites deliver a minimum of 10% affordable home ownership units.”  This again appears to represent a shift away from the small-sites exemption, although no doubt the detail of the NPPF revision will clarify this point in due course.

In summary

Overall, the White Paper appears to make a number of reasonable points (eg we need more housing, we need to find ways to speed delivery).  However, the belief that the system will be reformed by people suddenly experiencing something akin to a ‘road to Damascus’ revelation that they need to deliver more local housing in their own communities, when, as the White Paper acknowledges, some councils currently “duck difficult decisions and don’t plan for the homes their area needs” appears to me to be a case of wishful thinking. 

It will be interesting to see how many local councillors heed the government’s exhortation to deliver a quick fix to problems which have been many years in the making, and whether the government are ultimately willing to take on underperforming authorities (particularly in traditional Conservative heartlands) and force them to deliver more housing, or whether political pressures ultimately mean that the White Paper is simply empty rhetoric.

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