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The Housing White Paper and London: how many doors will it open?

Steve Cole, Policy Director, Housing, London First

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With months of speculation, the housing white paper was being touted as one of two things, the most combustible of barn burners or the dampest of squibs. So which has it turned out to be and what does this mean for London?

At the top level, the white paper lays out two positive, and long trailed changes in direction.

Good but not a step-change in supply

By acknowledging that a combination of a lack of supply and rocketing house prices are bad for the UK’s competitiveness, the government is finally recognising what London’s business community has been saying for some time. Demand for housing in London is growing and far outstrips supply – a trend that will continue as the population grows to an anticipated 10 million by 2036. This is now a major issue for employers seeking to recruit and retain top talent.

Despite the many welcome proposals put forward, it is a stretch to see how they will deliver a step-change in supply and provide the capital with the 50,000 homes a year it urgently needs.

Support for a range of housing tenures

Every government seems to decide that there is one type of housing product which will act as a silver bullet for the nation’s fantastically complex housing crisis. For the Cameron administration it was home ownership. This week’s white paper signalled a clear shift away from this under May, towards increasing the supply of all housing tenures. Support for build to rent is a particularly positive step. There is also acknowledgement that all parties involved in the housing market – developers, government, and local authorities – are part of the solution.

So the overall direction is positive, what about how to get there?

Building homes faster

All eyes in London were on plans to speed up house building. The Greater London Authority has previously noted there are 210,000 planning permissions that have not commenced construction. The government proposes to cut the length of time developers have to implement a planning permission from three to two years. There is also a shift from planning permission based on the merits of an application to a system which could also consider the applicant’s track record in building out sites and the site’s general planning history.

The complexity of developing in London gives some pause for thought about how this will actually work, but these proposals are presented as consultative and we hope there will be an opportunity for London to consider how these changes could be adapted.

Land and Green Belt

There was much media speculation, and a good deal of tension within government about the role of the Green Belt. In the end, the government has reaffirmed its commitment to a ‘brownfield first’ approach. While prioritising brownfield land is the right move, it’s unrealistic to assume this will provide sufficient land to meet London’s housing need. Our report ‘The Green Belt: a place for Londoners?’ recommends a re-evaluation of Green Belt land which sits alongside other measures.

London still needs more help

The white paper, perhaps inevitably, fails to live up to the hype which preceded it. Many of the proposals will not have the same influence on London as the rest of the country. Whilst the devolution of much housing and planning policy has helped to put London ahead of the game, the housing crisis in London remains more complex, more acute and demands greater measures.

So what to make of all this? Perhaps the best analogy is that the white paper indicates that government is finally looking in the right direction when it comes to housing but has yet to properly start walking the way it is facing.

You can read our in-depth analysis of the white paper here, and access the paper in full here.

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