The problem with Project Speed

Damon Culbert (pictured) is a writer on behalf of TIC Finance, bridging loan and repossession specialists

To avoid the prospect of a recession even worse than the financial crash, the government is putting in motion a number of plans to keep Britain working and contributing to the economy.

As part of this, Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced ‘Project Speed’ which includes strategies for Britain to ‘build, build, build’ its way out of disaster and the ‘most radical’ reforms to planning permission since WW1.

These will be welcome words to the construction industry, given that ONS figures for April show a 40% drop in construction work output and the Construction Leadership Council believes there will be a 10% drop in employment by September.

However, the government’s words obscured a number of challenges that house builders and planners must take into consideration in order to produce good-quality, long-lasting housing that benefits homeowners and society as a whole.

Red tape troubles

Boris Johnson’s speech at the end of June discussed slashing red tape around planning permission, stating that this was one of the biggest roadblocks to house building that had been plaguing successive governments for years.

The homeless charity Shelter observed that planning permission was actually granted for 382,997 buildings in the year 2017-18 that weren’t completed. This is far higher than the government’s own target of 300,000 houses a year, suggesting that planning permission is, in fact, not the leading contributing factor to the housing crisis. Additionally, the government’s own research has, in the past, concluded that tackling the housing crisis has historically been slow because house builders produce large estates of the same housing stock and sell it off slowly to keep prices high.

If the government’s own research has come to this conclusion, it is difficult to understand why Johnson has taken aim at planning permission instead, especially when the aim of his scheme is to invigorate building work and keep the construction industry going.

Long-term empty properties

The government’s housing plans also make no mention of the UK’s estimated 216,000 long-term empty homes. This equates to around £123bn in property that is unused for the majority of the year. Though this is lower than the government’s yearly building target, it highlights the ways in which housing is more than an issue of building. So many unused properties being removed from the market, typically for holiday homes, inflates prices and restricts locals not on the property ladder from owning their own properties.

In his speech, Johnson also mentioned a scheme of discounted properties for first-time buyers. This scheme will likely be beneficial to a great deal of new homeowners in getting onto the property ladder. However, this still doesn’t take into consideration the fact that housing scarcity is often down to competition rather than physical buildings.

Changing property use

One of the biggest announcements in Johnson’s speech related to the removal of planning permission for changing the use of a property. Johnson intends to make it easier for empty shops and other commercial buildings to be more quickly converted to residential property. This is intended to go hand-in-hand with the regeneration of the high street, promoting a larger community role for high street shops.

This should be welcomed by both the high street and property developers, while also relieving pressure on greenfield land. Indeed, a previous scheme carried out while Theresa May was prime minister, involving ‘office-to-resi’ conversions, had similar intentions. Unfortunately, office blocks converted into living spaces were not as successful as they could have been. A survey by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) found that 70% of these properties didn’t comply with national space standards and that 77% were studio or single bedroom apartments.

If the government intends to use this as one of the lead strategies for solving the housing crisis, it must put assurances in place that properties created in this way will be of a high quality and have the potential to be long-lasting homes for many years to come. If this isn’t the case, the country will be in an even worse position years down the line, faced with the same housing crisis and an even larger number of unfit living spaces.

Space requirements and overcrowding

Problems with space in these previous schemes also highlights the troubles of house building following the coronavirus pandemic. Research by Inside Housing revealed that local authorities with higher levels of overcrowding also had higher numbers of coronavirus deaths. The research threw into relief just how important housing is as a public health issue. If housing schemes in the future continue to create properties that don’t meet even the minimum space requirements, another threat like coronavirus could be made even worse in the future.

No more ‘newt-counting’

Boris Johnson was also happy to point out that slashing planning permission red tape would put an end to the ‘newt-counting’ that keeps property developers from breaking ground. What this means is that planners in the future will be able to side step the incoming biodiversity net gain plan which shows how the development will benefit the community environmentally. At a time when the government is set to miss nine of its own 14 biodiversity targets, this could potentially be disastrous for British wildlife. This also undermines the government’s assurance that these reforms are intended to relieve pressure from greenfield sites and protect green spaces.

New words, new money?

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband has also pointed out that the pledged £12bn over the next eight years Mr Johnson celebrated in his June speech is a step down from the £12bn over five years promised in the last budget announced by the chancellor. While his words may say ‘build, build, build’, what Johnson isn’t saying may be speaking even more loudly.

The government is right to focus on the construction industry at this time of critical importance, but it mustn’t do so to the detriment of its people as a whole. These announcements could be what is needed to boost the industry through a difficult time but shifting promises and a focus on quantity instead of quality could be a dangerous path to take.