Housing: why we need more than numbers

March 5, 2018

With the cost of homes in England and Wales almost eight times average annual earnings, housing has become a political issue of the first order.  Homeownership declined between 2003 and 2013 before stagnating and remains beyond the reach of many, particularly younger people.  Renting too often remains an unattractive and expensive proposition and the stock of social housing continues to shrink.

It is against this backdrop that the Prime Minister announced further changes to the planning rules on Monday, reinforcing the promise she made at last October’s Conservative Party Conference to take personal charge of meeting the housing challenge.

In a speech to the National Planning Conference in East London, Theresa May shared her concerns that a shortage of housing  is reinforcing inequality, preventing social mobility and creating resentment among those struggling to buy or finding somewhere to rent.

According to Mrs May, failure to build enough homes in the right places over successive decades lies at the root cause of this crisis.  To address the affordability crisis, we need to build more homes in the most expensive parts of the country.

Building homes in areas of greatest demand makes economic sense. But the wealthiest parts of the country are where we are most likely to see the greatest public opposition to housing building.  This can only be overcome with greater emphasis on good design and an ambition to deliver quality housing.

The latest reforms to the National Planning Policy Framework, introduced six years ago, are therefore designed to put more pressure on so-called NIMBY councils and developers to speed up housebuilding and deliver a greater number of homes. Proposals which largely echo the Housing White Paper launched a year ago also emphasize the need to make best possible use of land, increasing densities in towns and cities, whilst promising to protect the Green Belt.

Outside London, the focus is to target new housing in the wider South East with particular emphasis on the Oxford to Cambridge corridor where five new garden towns are planned – as was recommended by a previous winner of the Wolfson Prize.

After decades of very little action on housebuilding, greater Government focus on development is welcome. Yet if we really want to address Nimbyism and gain broader support for new housing, we need to recognise that aesthetics also matter. As was noted in a follow-up report for Policy Exchange by Lord Taylor, which revisited the Wolfson Garden Cities Competition, -a key policy to support development should be the setting quality design standards for construction to complement a master planning mechanism.


Nobody wants to see 300,000 brick boxes a year.  Too many communities feel jaded by developer promises of quality specifications that are then chipped away as build progresses.

Among the reams of ministerial press briefings on housing over the weekend, there was very little mention of housing quality, design and style.

In the consultation document that followed, Chapter 12 on “Achieving well-designed” places is barely a page.

Existing residents, who may regard new homes a blight and a threat to their neighbourhoods, are unlikely to be swayed by the “design guides and tools” outlined in the Housing White Paper and reflected in the new proposals.

If we really want to build better quality places rather than simply reach a target number, we must go beyond wishful thinking and work with the grain of the market rather than against it.

Investing more upfront on housing design and surrounding infrastructure including schools, doctors surgeries, public spaces and other local amenities is essential for creating great places to live. It can also make commercial sense

House prices reflect this.  New build values in Poundbury, the new town in the outskirts of Dorset built according to traditional principles advocated by the Prince of Wales, were 29% higher than in other schemes in the surrounding area in 2016 according to a study by Savills.

Harnessing these gains to deliver better quality places with a range of different kinds of housing in a range of tenures requires long term vision.  It also needs a partnership approach between communities,  landowners, master developers, house builders, housing associations,  local authorities and investors with patient capital.

So as well as providing design guides, policy should support business models and partnerships that deliver development that communities want.

Aligning a community’s needs and desire for great housing with a developers’ and landowners’ objectives to create value, is the most effective way to deliver popular neighbourhoods that endure.

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