Christine Whitehead thumbLabour’s housing commission has just published a set of proposals for building new homes. Christine Whitehead, a member of the LSE’s Housing in London project, which is looking into ways of addressing the supply crisis, reviews the report. She writes that there is an oddly brief section specific to London, even though the city’s housing needs make up at least 25 per cent of the total national requirement. Moreover, the rather negative and political approach to the capital misses an important reality – that many of the recommendations are already exemplified in London’s experience.

The Lyons Housing Review published in October aims to provide a route map for an incoming Labour government to generate an immediate step change in the building of new homes. To this end it sets out 39 recommendations around the government’s role in setting priorities; additional or restructured central government powers; mechanisms for giving local authorities greater capacity to ensure land availability and delivery; and additional support for the development industry as well as a wider range of housing providers.

There are a number of recommendations around simplifying and de-risking planning which are relatively easy to implement and could make a real difference in increasing the number of suppliers taking part in the market without upsetting the fundamental system. However, like most such housing reviews going back to the Labour Government’s 1976 Housing Policy Review, while it starts by stressing the need for simplification, streamlining and stability it then goes on to suggest a large number of additional or restructured policies and institutions which at best could slow the process of delivery and at worst could further embed bureaucratic complexity.

These include: a government task force; a housing observatory; a housing commission to give independent advice to the task force; re-tasking and expanding the role of the Homes and Communities Agency – including transferring the management of government guarantees to the Agency; a national spatial assessment; the requirement to put in place sub-regional Strategic Housing Market Plans; modifications to Local Plans together with additional central government monitoring; an arbitration service for S106 negotiations; revolving infrastructure funds; New Homes Corporations; Housing Growth Areas; a new National Housing Design guide; and more.

Each of these suggestions on their own addresses particular issues but, together with a whole range of comprehensive reviews of different aspects of government policy, they add up to a massive and lengthy shake up putting further responsibilities on already overstretched stakeholders without significantly increasing the incentives to supply.

The review, of necessity given its remit, concentrates on national policy (and to make even this manageable concentrates almost entirely on England rather than the whole of the UK). There are very few specific mentions of London even though based on the projections which form the starting point for the Lyons analysis, London’s housing needs make up at least 25 per cent of the total national requirement. If the suggested system is going to work for the country as a whole it has to work in spades for the capital.

Instead, the half page section specific to London, while mentioning the possibility of a bespoke approach, simply goes on to say that housing output in London has dramatically failed to keep pace with increasing demand; that there is a gap between planned output levels and measured need; and that there is no strategy in place for dealing with this unmet need. There is only one specific suggestion – not even included in the 39 recommendations – that central government will need to give a clear view on the extent to which London’s housing needs should be met within the capital or the surrounding local authority areas. This alone is unlikely to solve this long standing area of tension, especially given the emphasis on local responsibilities.

This rather negative and, compared to the rest of the report, political approach to London seems to miss an important reality.  Many of the recommendations are already exemplified in London’s experience – notably the existence of regional funding; the integration of the HCA with the GLA; the extent to which the GLA monitors planning permissions, starts and completions and takes a direct role in overcoming financial and other barriers to unlocking large scale developments in the capital; Housing Zones; and many other initiatives.

As a result London, often in partnership with central government, has taken significant steps to set in place at least some of the conditions necessary to generate a step change in investment. And compared to the rest of the country, it has been relatively successful in increasing delivery after the major setbacks of the late 2000s, especially with respect to affordable housing. While no one would say that what we are seeing is more than a start, it does at least already exemplify how many of the changes suggested in the Review might operate. It seems to be a missed opportunity, therefore, not to take notice of these initiatives – and the lessons they have already taught us – before making recommendations at the national level.

For more on this topic, see Housing in London: Addressing the Supply Crisis

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Woodley Wonderworks CC BY 2.0

About the Author

Christine Whitehead thumbChristine Whitehead is Professor of Housing Economics at the London School of Economics. Her research interests are mainly in the fields of housing and urban economics, housing finance and policy and more general issues of privatisation and regulation. She is an Honorary Associate member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. She has given evidence to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government committee on private renting and the DWP committee on Welfare and housing Costs over the last 18 month. In 1991, she was awarded the OBE for services to housing.

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