Why party political housebuilding pledges are meaningless

housebuilding pledges

Paul Walton, a director at North West planning consultants PWA Planning, explains why parties’ manifesto pledges on new homes need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

It’s election time again and, with the launch of the party manifestos this week, we’ve heard political leaders make bold commitments to increase the supply of new affordable housing.

Labour has pledged to build at least 100,000 new council-owned homes each year, a programme that would cost billions, but hasn’t given any detail of how this will be achieved in practice. It also want to introduce a new government department to tackle the housing crisis.

The Conservatives, who reintroduced direct commissioning for new homes in 2016, have said they will build “a new generation of social housing”, but have admitted there will be no new money for the policy.

The Lib Dems want to scale up housebuilding to 300,000 new homes per year by taking a tougher stance on developers that fail to build out sites with planning permission under a “use it, or lose it” approach. They also want to increase access to finance for housing associations and remove laws that exempt smaller schemes from providing affordable homes.

There are some good ideas on paper but many of them have been in manifestos from previous elections. Recent history tells us these housing targets are impossibly hard to reach as the economic realities of being in government hit home.

In my opinion it’s why political parties are on dangerous ground when they make such pledges. At the end of the day, politicians don’t build houses. Developers build houses.

Of course, nobody should pretend our current planning and development system is perfect. There are far too many sites that gain planning permission but then, for various reasons, don’t get built. Our leaders do have to try something.

However, in my opinion, if parties take too tough a stance on the development industry, that won’t encourage more building. It will simply discourage developers from bringing sites forward in the first place.

Government intervention must be backed up by investment too. The old saying that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” springs to mind. If the incentives for developers are removed, they will simply walk away.

You can’t pledge to build hundreds of thousands of new homes and then introduce policies that stifle development.

Measures like the rental cap, for example, have curtailed new affordable housing development. In the private sector, the Community Infrastructure Levy, combined with ongoing planning obligations, has made many new investment and development projects less attractive to developers and, perhaps more importantly, to landowners whose expectations are unable to be met.

What is called for is a spirit of collaboration between central and local governments and private and public sector developers to identify, release and develop-out significantly greater amounts of land for new housing. This must be to meet all sectors of society, including those not currently catered for within the market and in particular the elderly.

Of course, such a bold agenda, namely supporting the development of large swathes of greenfield land (including green belt) does not tend to garner many votes, whereas the claim to force developers to build thousands of extra new homes by beating them into submission or to spend tax-payers’ money to such an end, tends to play to the respective politics.

Paul Walton is a director of PWA Planning, a team of specialist planning consultants in Lancashire. For further information call Paul on 01772 369669.