Will changes make houses any more affordable?

June 01 2021
Will changes make houses any more affordable?

Planning Matters, with Chris Gosling

IT'S policy time again. The Queen's speech, when the government puts forward the programme for new acts of parliament, has turned planners’ minds to the future.

For the current government, it is an opportunity to exercise a bit of ‘joined-up thinking’, reveal a future direction for the country and add some flesh to the bones of slogans like "Build Back Better".

As ever with the current government, the flesh is thin and lacking in detail, but there are enough signs of interaction between policy in different areas to maybe discern some kind of vision.

The vision for planning can be wrapped up in one oft-used word: reform.

This is intended to take the form of a 'zonal' system. What will these zones be, how will they be allocated and what the implications will be in practice are the big questions.

The focus is very much on promoting house building, but I have explained before that it is not necessarily down to planning that not enough homes are being built. The million-plus un-started houses which already have planning permission are testament to this.

The bigger issue is, of course, affordability.

The housing industry would be foolish to build houses without the people in a position to buy them, but it is not a simple question of supply and demand.

House prices have risen by 10% in the last year. If the equation were simple, then building more houses would mean the value of the house you may own would go down. That is unlikely to generate votes from millions of homeowners.

Yet without the ability to get on the ladder, the housing market looks like a castle with the drawbridge pulled up. That situation is unsustainable, and only higher wages from better-paid jobs or a drop in house prices will remedy it.

It will be interesting to see if the taxpayer will continue to underwrite ever-larger mortgages with schemes like Help to Buy or if the government can more effectively ensure that a proportion of new houses are genuinely affordable.

With the zonal system, whichever form it finally takes, public participation is intended to be ‘front-loaded’ at the stage of drawing up a local plan to guide development.

This looks like becoming a political battleground: you could see the public as just as much an impediment to house building as planning is supposed to be.

If the public does not get involved in drawing up the local plan, the one opportunity to comment will have been lost. Of course, at such an early stage it is hard for anyone to appreciate the practicalities of the limits set in a local plan, certainly in comparison with a specific application in your street.

It looks likely that in the future, planning applications will be judged against the zone a proposal is in.

Planners may look at how many storeys a building would have and the details of the design. If the right boxes are ticked, the public is unlikely to even be asked for their thoughts: their only opportunity was when the local plan was drawn up.

Any changes will be vying with many other potential new laws in a busy parliamentary year, but change, of some sort, is coming – and seemingly sooner rather than later.