As 2017 gets under way, HBF executive chairman Stewart Baseley looks forward to seeing the Housing White Paper and calls for more policy assistance for small to medium sized housebuilders
The new year started as the old ended, with housing at the very top of the media and political agenda. Even before we had returned to work, government announcements on garden villages and Starter Homes had been on the front pages of all the national newspapers.
Since then we have had a constant stream of articles on various issues – positive and negative – including many predicting the publication date and content of the much anticipated Housing White Paper, which as I write, is yet to be published. We have also seen a flurry of reports produced on various housing related issues as people attempt to influence government and public thinking and promote the very differing opinions various groups or organisations, including our own, have on housing and housing policy.
I don’t think I am going out on too much of a limb in suggesting that I expect this level of interest to continue throughout the year. Government clearly sees housing as a key issue and, as I am sure the White Paper will confirm, is considering all options to achieve its commitment to increase output; whilst more generally, the social and economic impact of our acute housing shortage will ensure related issues remain in the public eye.
The announcements thus far this year were relatively positive, if as expected. With regards to garden villages it is good that thinking is developing and the additional funding announced and greater access to existing delivery funds will hopefully bring sites forward more quickly. It must be noted however that many of the sites are, of course, already included in local plans and so will not provide additional housing. Government must also ensure that housing on such sites in the future is not used as a reason not to bring forward other sites, in particular smaller ones, or as a reason not to keep a five year land supply in place.
The Starter Homes announcement was more tangible, focusing on what was originally proposed for the scheme back in autumn 2014 whereby public-private partnerships would lead to additional brownfield sites coming forward for development where they would otherwise prove unviable. We still await the detail on the mechanics of actually marketing, discounting and selling a Starter Home, but the move away from having a large proportion of Starter Homes on every single new site was a predictable one.
We hope there is more in the White Paper on Starter Homes. We also anticipate further improvements to the planning system. Whilst of course we welcome the increase in permissions granted since the NPPF was introduced, it is still taking far too long to get the permissions to the stage that we can actually get on and build. As a recent HBF statement made clear, the volume of unnecessary pre-commencement conditions being imposed by some local authorities is stifling the ability of developers to build homes and resulting in accusations of landbanking.SME builders
We are also keen to see further policy assistance for SME builders. As the report we published in January shows, the number of smaller builders has plummeted in recent decades. The main reasons for this are a lack of development finance and the costly and time-consuming complexities of the planning and regulatory systems that small companies simply do not have the structures or capacity to deal with. As Redrow’s chairman Steve Morgan says in the foreword, it would now be inconceivable for someone to do what he has done with Redrow and grow it from a fledgling business into a national housebuilder. Our report, which was sent to ministers and officials in advance of the White Paper, makes a number of recommendations as to how SMEs can be enabled to play their part in delivering more homes. The majority of the increases in overall supply over the past three years or so have been delivered by the larger builders and if we are to see further sustainable growth we need to stimulate more sections of the industry.
Industry capacity will, of course, be key to this and regardless of the company size people are employed by, if we are to build more homes we need more trained employees. Through 2017, attracting and training more people will be a major work stream for HBF and the wider industry. The Home Building Skills Partnership is starting to gain some real momentum and is looking to involve all areas of the industry and the supply chain as it strives to put in place systems that will benefit industry companies of all types and sizes. I urge you to get involved in an initiative that will bring long term benefits to all.
Build quality and customer service is another area that will be a key focus this year. As we increase output it is absolutely essential we are focussed on maintaining – indeed improving on – the high standards set over recent years. We are absolutely committed to this agenda and I will outline in the coming months how the various groups we have put together to look at these issues are progressing.
The White Paper will hopefully contain proposals that will build on the pro-development policies of recent years and allow companies to plan ahead with confidence. If so, and assuming a level of economic and political stability, we should be able to deliver further increases in housing supply in the year ahead. But as the first weeks of the new year have proved, we do so within an environment whereby our every move is monitored and scrutinised and we need to proceed accordingly.
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