White Paper signals a diverse approach to our housing crisis

In her latest blog, Thrive Homes Chief Executive Elspeth Mackenzie contemplates the implications and opportunities presented by the recent Housing White Paper.

As the dust settles after the unveiling of the government’s long-anticipated Housing White Paper, where do we go from here? It is an interesting document despite the fact that, to my mind, it says little more than previous announcements.

However, it is helpful in shaping the debate the government wants – and needs – to have with all the participants required to mend the ‘broken housing market’. It also acknowledges that a diverse market is required to deliver that outcome, both in terms of diversity of tenure and the range of providers who need to play a role – including the private sector.

Another positive is that the paper suggests the need for greater creativity in terms of land use and density of housebuilding – and the need for reform around planning policy. However, that must be linked more widely to other planning policies. Otherwise, councils may use planning requirements to reduce the level of density that can be achieved.

High-rise housing seems to be embraced but this type of scheme is not suitable for all. Let us learn from the mistakes of the past and realise this is no panacea for the housing crisis but could be part of a more wide-ranging approach.

It is clear that the green belt will continue to be protected, but I am convinced that some sensible relaxation of such restrictions would be helpful in increasing our land supply for housebuilding.

As regards housing associations, there is really nothing new being said. The one note of caution I would sound is the reference to clarity of rent policy post-2020. There is a clear link between rent, ability to borrow and delivery of more homes. There’s a danger in accepting a simplistic narrative of higher rent equals more homes and we need to be careful about how this is shaped.

Despite the emphasis on housebuilding, it is worth remembering that housing provision is also about the quality of existing units that are recycled over time. It may be tempting to respond to the supply agenda by reducing stock investment programmes. It’s important we ensure the quality of social housing is maintained.

Investing in the future

While there are many positive indications within the White Paper, there are a multitude of issues outside our sector’s control – such as planning policy, potential resistance from local authorities, and the scope for release of land in high-pressure areas.

So the recognition that this is a complex picture, involving a variety of partners and tenures, is a welcome acknowledgement of reality. It also conveys the sense that there will be no two-minute ‘magic bullet’ – this is going to take time.

Patience isn’t always compatible with politics so it’s going to take nerve not to change tack too soon. By taking the time to make good decisions, we can work together to create a valuable long-term infra-structure investment for this country and the people who need, or aspire to have, their own home – whether that’s through buying or renting.

But we mustn’t lose sight of other elements which are important to make the best of the changes outlined in this document, such as the need to ensure housing associations not only have the freedom to set rents but also to allocate appropriately – which should flow from deregulation.

Although the White Paper does not touch on this, I believe that different dynamics are necessary between housing associations and local authorities to truly enable our sector to play our part in ending the housing crisis.