LONDON — Chancellor Philip Hammond will give his Autumn Statement, the first major announcement of the UK government’s taxation and spending plans since the Brexit vote, on Wednesday.
The speech will include any major changes to the government’s housing policy, and industry experts will be listening closely — many of them believe the UK is facing an unprecedented housing crisis.
Last week’s “Redfern Review,” a report commissioned by Labour MP John Healey, revealed a dramatic drop in home ownership among British residents. Pete Redfern, the report’s author and chief executive of housebuilder Taylor Wimpey, said that “the nation faces a housing crisis, at the heart of which is the falling rate of homeownership.”
Official statistics released last week also showed that the number of affordable homes being built in England hit its lowest level in 25 years in 2015/16.
There is speculation that Hammond’s speech will outline measures to help smaller housebuilders, but an analyst note from Deutsche Bank predicts that “little” which is “particularly new” will be announced in the way of housing policy. Former councillor and eMoov chief executive Russell Quirk believes that the government needs to go further.
Below are his solutions to start mending what he calls “Britain’s broken housing market.”
1. Re-designate the swathes of unattractive parts of the green belt as ‘grey’ belt.
“Green belt” is a policy designed to control the outwards sprawl of urbanisation. In theory, a ring of countryside surrounding major cities is protected as a rural area, and planning rules prevent urbanisation in those areas to keep typical rural features of agriculture, forestry, and outdoor leisure.
Quirk said that many parts of the green belt are neither rural nor picturesque, however, and should be exempted from the policy. “Industrial estates, scrap yards, and so on, should all be reclassified as “grey belt” in order that planning officers are unable to apply a ‘Computer says no’ approach to them,” Quirk said.
Grey belt land would still contain some protections, but would prevent planning officers from automatically refusing development applications, as they must when it comes to green belt land.
“Politically, building on the grey belt will be acceptable,” Quirk said. “But don’t just talk about it. Do it.”
2. Force councils to identify their own land that is laying to waste.
Quirk said that in his former capacity as a councillor in Brentwood, Essex, he identified “dozens of acres” which the council was not using and “got it built on.”
“Despite there being a mandatory asset register of such land,” Quirk said, “councils are not being entrepreneurial enough in utilising it.”
Quirk said that a system of incentives and penalties for councils could ensure that the scheme is implemented, rather than simply being talked about.
3. Set up a government-owned development company.
Quirk believes that the time is right for a “proper” government-owned developer — “not a panel or a commission” — one that identifies suitable land, takes a planning application through the formal process itself, hires the construction contractors, and builds the housing itself.
Quirk said: “Frankly, if housebuilders want to land-bank hundreds of thousands of plots without building on them, let them. But UK housing must no longer be held to ransom by them.”
4. De-politicise the planning process.
Quirk believes that the problem of “Nimbyist” housebuilding — where people oppose development projects in their own communities is proving a major barrier to progress in towards a viable government housing policy.
He said that government should remove the “threat” to new housing schemes from “handfuls of local people scaring the bejesus out of local councillors.”
How? “Bite the bullet” and make it a requirement local councils to form local housing development plans democratically, but “then allow a professional panel of experts to make the final decision on schemes above a certain size,” Quirk said.
That, he believes, would prevent a small but vocal lobby of local residents being able to block developments on such a regular basis.