New report calls for a radical shake up of planning in London to ease housing crisis

A new report calls for a radical planning shake up to solve London’s housing crisis that would professionalise decision making and increased the supply of land suitable for house building.

The report from Sir Mark Boleat, the former policy chairman of the City of London Corporation, identifies a shortage of developable land and the planning system as the major hindrances to house building.

Written for the Housing and Finance Institute, Sir Mark demands action to force local authorities, central government departments, the health service and transport bodies to stop hanging on to surplus space, or face financial penalties.

The report also says building must take place in much greater concentration, pointing to central London’s population density being little more than half that of central Paris and well below the figures for central Tokyo and Manhattan.

For the first time, Sir Mark also dispels many of the myths for why there are shortages of housing in London. He cites evidence to dispel the myth that foreign buyers are to blame for the housing shortage in London, the myth that there is brownfield land alone is sufficient to meet demand in the capital and he counters the notion that with more housing must necessarily also come the provision of extra funding for all other public services if what is urgently needed is the housing in order to house the existing population.

‘Housing is the number one domestic policy challenge of our age. The crisis in the capital is harming London’s competiveness and fostering inter-generational unfairness. The same old answers to the same old perceived problems won’t get us out of this mess. We must be radical and we must be clear about the real reasons for a lack of affordable housing in London,’ he said.

‘Our problem is not foreign buyers, a decline in council house building or developers sitting on undeveloped land. Nor do more homes necessarily have to come with more public service provision, as to some extent we are talking about providing the housing required for the existing population. Conventional wisdom has led to perceived solutions and these solutions are wrong because the real problems have not been correctly identified,’ he pointed out.

‘The principal reason why the supply of new homes has not matched rising demand is that the supply of housing has been restricted by public policy measures. The planning system is the major factor in this regard and requires radical reform,’ he added.

The report identifies inter-related factors that are restricting the supply of new housing including policies on land use, particularly in respect of the green belt, the reluctance of public sector bodies to release surplus land, and inadequate infrastructure provision.

It explains that high taxes on house builders through planning obligations, and a planning system geared to the ‘haves’ not the ‘have nots’ adds considerably to costs of building housing, including through the imposition of conditions that have to be complied with before building can commence.

Alongside this the complex nature of sites that have the potential to be used for house building are a factor as is the nature of the house building industry which has become increasingly dominated by a small group of large developers, partly in response to the five previous points.

The paper sets out a 10 point plan to get London building again. It says there needs to be an evidence based debate and recognition that there are trade-offs, recognition that the problem will not be solved by building on brownfield land alone and a change of policy towards land use, including green belt and allowing higher density housing.

There also needs to be a recognition that the higher the tax on house building through planning obligations the fewer houses will be built as 30% of a large number can be much higher than 50% of a small number.

It also says there needs to be strong penalties on public sector bodies that fail to release surplus land while planning conditions need to be reduced significantly, costed and deemed to be discharged within seven days of certification by the developer, unless the local authority has clear evidence that the conditions have not been complied with.

It also calls for planning decisions in local authorities to be joined-up with wider policy objectives and taken by relatively small panels, who have received appropriate training, and representatives of an area in which a development would take place should be excluded from voting on that decision.

Finally, it calls for a simplification of the Community Infrastructure Levy and S.106 requirements particularly for social housing and stronger political leadership in individual local authorities, without which the problem will never be solved and which is a pre-requisite for addressing the other issues.

‘For too long people influential in the debate have been allowed to get away with inaccurate assertions. This paper dispels the myths, explains why we as a country must abandon our view that the Green Belt is sacrosanct and sets out a plan for some far-reaching change that can fix the genuinely broken elements of the house building market,’ he concluded.