The government's housing reforms are mostly noise – it's what's missing that's dangerous

There is much that is good in the government's plans, but there are crucial issues on which the new white paper is silent.

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The Westminster government has released its white paper on planning reform. There’s a lot in it, some good, some bad.

The central conceit – of reducing planning hurdles – is a good one.  It is, as we would expect under Boris Johnson’s government, also a major centralisation of power away from local councils, but that doesn’t always have to be bad: whoever holds power over planning and housebuilding will have to face down the opposition of the winners from the current housing situation. What matters is less “who controls the levers?” but “what do they intend to do with them?” On that question, however, I have three areas of concern.

[see also: There’s something everyone has missed in Boris Johnson’s Dudley speech]

The first is the de facto end of Section 106 agreements: the process whereby a council agrees to let me build 100 luxury flats in their borough, provided I either pay for or build ten affordable or social homes. Section 106s now account for half of the new affordable and/or social lets being constructed in this country, so their departure is potentially a major blow to affordable and social housing.

I don’t like Section 106. It came in 1990, and I think it makes a great deal of sense if the policy challenge you’ve set yourself is “how do I ameliorate the consequences of a decade in which the government sold off council housing en masse without building any new council housing, without admitting fault or triggering my own programme of council housing?”

But if that’s not the question, it’s hard not to believe we couldn't devise something better. The concept of "affordable" housing is highly flawed in my view – affordability is by definition a movable feast and very rarely means genuine affordability. Significantly increasing the amount of social and council housing is the better policy option.

The problem is that the government’s white paper doesn’t propose very much to replace Section 106. Its implicit logic is that if you build more housing, then prices fall, and affordability happens by itself. I used to agree, but I’m increasingly persuaded of the case made by Ian Mulheirn and others that while housing supply is part of the equation, record-low interest rates are too. The only way to get affordable and decent housing for large numbers of people is by building much more social and council housing.

Housing charities and campaigners are understandably and in my view rightly reluctant to let Section 106 agreements go without a fight when there is no guarantee of something new in their place. But the government and the opposition ought to be devising new policies to get council housebuilding back up at scale rather than defending Section 106, because it works poorly. Fixing this hole is one big and important change that needs to happen as the white paper progresses through the policymaking and legislative processes.

My second concern is that when you look at the detail, these changes are all noise. There are still considerable blockages to building new homes in the right places: those blockages simply move from being in the hands of well-organised local residents opposed to new building, into the hands of central and local governmentwhich are, of course, elected by well-organised local residents opposed to new building.

There are built-in exemptions that would inhibit new housing growth in leafy Conservative towns in the south of England – which, assuming the government succeeds in its quest to turn the homeworking tide back, are where the most homes need to be built. Don’t forget that London’s housing crisis is the jobs crisis elsewhere. Either we need to move jobs out of London, or build more housing in and around it.

[see also: It’s more expensive to be poor. Now housing costs make it more expensive to be young too]

Policies can be strengthened during the consultation process – as the Smoking Act, the Health and Social Care Act, the Domestic Abuse Act, and the Modern Slavery Act all have been in the past 15 years. But more frequently they are diluted in the face of opposition. As it stands, I think it is more likely than not that if the usual process takes place, these exemptions to building in the south will be strengthened, not weakened.

The reforms would continue the trajectory of the past half-decade, during which the governments first of Theresa May and then of Boris Johnson moved from the Cameron-era practice of actively blocking new council housebuilding by local authorities to overseeing a kind of benign neglect. But the conditions for that approach have been worsened by the coronavirus crisis. Local governments were cash-strapped already, and allowing them more freedom to borrow to build housing may have come back into vogue in British politics just in time for local councils to get a limited benefit from the change. So there needs to be both greater courage on the green belt and a willingness to actively, rather than passively, support local government.  

[see also: Ed Miliband: Why Britain should build three million new council houses]

The third and most important concern is something not mentioned in the white paper at all: the Grenfell Tower fire and the ongoing inquiry into its causes by Martin Moore-Bick. The inquiry has confirmed that the problem that caused the biggest and most catastrophic domestic fire since the Blitz to spread was the building's flammable cladding. It is still looking into how this came to be used, and what went wrong in the process of fire and safety inspections. 

There is an awful lot in the white paper about the need to make new housing developments “beautiful”. Cladding was once considered beautiful, and still is by some people: that’s why it was put on Grenfell Tower and hundreds of blocks like it, and why it is still on countless private blocks.

Governments are poorly placed to adjudicate on subjective notions of "beauty", but they can and should enforce and guarantee safety. Any change to our housing policy and its regulations needs to have the findings of the Moore-Bick inquiry at the heart of whatever it ends up doing – so that the lessons that weren’t learnt from the Lakanal House fire in 2009 are learnt from the tragedy of 2017.

The white paper is silent both on what regulation it envisages to ensure safety, and on the ongoing inquiry into that topic. It makes sense to put aside the question of what exact regulation is needed until after the inquiry reports, and to delay any sweeping changes to regulations until after the Grenfell inquiry has concluded.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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