New government, same old housing mistake

In an ever-changing political landscape Colin Muller, CEO of Muller Property Group provides his thoughts on Regional Spatial Strategy and government housing targets.

Why was the Regional Spatial Strategy revoked?

Almost as soon as his party gained power in 2010, Eric Pickles, the incumbent communities and local government secretary revoked the Regional Spatial Strategies that were introduced by the Blair administration back in 2004. By revoking this framework, Pickles abolished impartial, top-down housing targets, which were shared across the regions outside London without political bias or dogma.

Revocation set in motion the politicisation of putting roofs over heads, or to put it another way, limiting the number of roofs compared to heads. For most of the 2010s, allowing Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) to set their own housing targets has marred the preparation of Local Plans across the country. This massively slowed down the process of Examinations in Public, leading expensive Barristers to argue with expensive planning consultants over the difference between often only a few dozen homes per annum. This legalistic approach was a costly process for the LPAs and, of course, the taxpayer.

What’s the current government’s position on housing targets?

The government at the time justified locally-set housing targets by spinning the message that nationally set targets based on Population Projections produced by the Office of National Statistics were somehow Marxist or Stalinist. This tawdry rhetoric has been used again recently to remove top-down housing targets. During the summer’s leadership election, Liz Truss told the Sunday Telegraph that she would “abolish the top-down Whitehall-inspired Stalinist housing targets”. This quote seems to dovetail nicely into Karl Marx’s own comment about great historical personages and significant events occurring twice: first as tragedy and second as farce. One wonders why lessons were not learned from the great Pickles debacle the first time around. Or were they not paying attention?

While she didn’t have the time to introduce such policies during her five-minute premiership, it seems the new Prime Minister shares a similar view on housing.

Fortunately, the new Housing Minister, Michael Gove has moved to re-assert the primacy of top-down targets, calculated using the “Standard Methodology”.

What are the current NPPF guidelines?

“61. To determine the minimum number of homes needed, strategic policies should be informed by a local housing need assessment, conducted using the standard method in national planning guidance – unless exceptional circumstances justify an alternative approach which also reflects current and future demographic trends and market signals. In addition to the local housing need figure, any needs that cannot be met within neighbouring areas should also be taken into account in establishing the amount of housing to be planned for.”

How are housing targets decided?

The Standard Methodology, or Objectively Assessed Need (OAN) as it’s been known for the past few years, is the most scientific method we have. This, of course, is far more scientific than 60 untrained councillors voting on the lowest number they can get away with. It is criminal that our most basic needs are being put in the hands of political careerists and, unfortunately, this farcical production has within it the power to smash lives and damage the national spirit, if it’s allowed to continue.

If housing figures were derived from local formulations, calculations being a far too generous word, then housing targets would be set artificially low and a race to the bottom would ensue. In turn, we would see an exacerbation of the housing crisis with plummeting housebuilding causing restricted supply and house-price inflation. Most importantly, many would be inadequately housed, despite growing families, long commutes or simply being a hidden household – i.e. being stuck with parents into late 20s or early 30s. This would severely impact the local and wider economy and leave many people and families in inadequately housed all because some local politicians want an additional term in office by placating the Nimbys.

What does this mean for affordable housing?

Crucially, national targets should even out across the country because they represent a balance of the national population growth projections. However, when targets are set locally, there is very little, if any correspondence with neighbouring authorities, especially given the at most comprehensive failure of what was the “Duty-to-Cooperate”. Locally-set housing supply targets are generally revised downwards to become politically palatable and, in turn, lead to demand going unmet with those in the greatest need of housing, impacted the most.

A particular and worrying consequence of these race to the bottom targets is that areas are left with an acute shortage in affordable housing and, of course, when these schemes aren’t delivered, waiting lists grow ever longer. This is all because of local councillors bending to the will of Nimbys, who tend to be home-owning retirees that are happy to pull the ladder up behind them, while they watch the value of their assets increase.

Housing is not a political plaything

The system isn’t perfect; sure, there are “policy-on” restrictions such as Green Belt alongside geographical constraints and there will always be a margin of error when predicting the future, depending on birth rates, internal and external migration, and of course, the economy. Understandably, targets are considered dictatorial because they disregard the independence of local politicians, and clash with local agendas. And rightly so; statistics bear no allegiances. They exist to understand historic patterns that feed into forecasts, based on fact, not the next local elections. On that basis, local actors simply cannot be trusted to meet the housing needs of their districts without playing politics.