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Housing white paper fails to deliver

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Buried in the depths of the eagerly anticipated (and much delayed) housing white paper lay a bombshell that threatened the very essence of what the government is trying to get the country to do: build more homes.

While supposedly supportive of councils setting up their own concerns to build homes, of which there are an increasing number, the document then went on to express a desire to extend the right-to-buy to properties constructed by these companies.

David Paine

David Paine

Putting aside some confusion about whether the government could actually enforce such rules on these private companies, the apparent lack of logic behind the proposal – presumably presented ironically in the ‘Backing local authorities to build’ part of the white paper – is bewildering.

It is especially surprising after housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell ingratiated himself with the sector when he announced last November that the extended right-to-buy to housing association tenants would not be rolled out nationally until April 2018 at the earliest, largely due to concerns about whether homes could be replaced on a one-for-one basis.

The white paper promised to be radical but, like many previous governments’ attempts to tackle the housing crisis, it has failed to deliver

Councils, with no realistic prospect of widespread housing revenue account borrowing restrictions being lifted any time soon, are already hamstrung when it comes to building homes. Extending the right-to-buy to housing association tenants, let alone private companies, only makes that activity harder.

The housing white paper had been billed as a means by which to empower councils. In fairness it does include some encouraging proposals such as allowing councils to increase fees to help resource depleted planning departments and providing them with greater powers over developers slow to build on sites. But that’s about it.

In fact, with proposals to introduce a standardised calculation for housing demand and new housing delivery tests, the white paper often strikes a centralist tone. So much for localism

While councils cannot tackle the country’s housing crisis alone, they are hardly being given a fair crack at making a significant contribution either.

The new homes bonus is seemingly on its way out following plans announced in the finance settlement to reduce legacy payments from six years to five in 2017-18, and to four years in 2018-19. This means there is less of an incentive for local authorities to build, especially on areas’ beloved greenbelts.

Yet one of the biggest problems, for cities especially, is a lack of suitable land on which to build.

Communities secretary Sajid Javid had previously said he would back councils that proposed to build on greenbelt, provided they had robust plans and grounds on which to do so. But facing a backbench backlash, led by former chief whip Andrew Mitchell, Mr Javid has changed his tone.

The housing white paper is 104 pages long. It promised to be radical but, just like many previous governments’ attempts to tackle the housing crisis, it too has failed to deliver.

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