Homes England needs to be ‘big picture’ and ‘big delivery’ in the next phase of its development under its new chairman, Peter Freeman. But viability and affordability remain a major block on the development of small sites in London and beyond.
Those were two of the key messages to emerge from this week’s meeting of the New London Sounding board as it discussed crucial housing issues for the capital and prepared the grounds for a forthcoming combined response to issues raised in the recent Planning White Paper.
Appointing Freeman may provide an opportunity to reflect on what London’s ‘ask’ actually is in terms of homes, said Sounding Board chairman and Freeman’s former colleague at Argent, Robert Evans, directed at all organisations including government and the mayor. ‘Could we present London’s case, and how the different sectors work together, better’, he asked, and is there a changing role for Homes England to debate?
Claire Bennie of Municipal said Homes England is not a London-focused agency but does grant money for the capital’s infrastructure, and its tasks include buying and selling land, supporting councils to deliver numbers, giving substantial loans to specific schemes and helping to buy. It also incentivises MMC, SME Builders and has a remit in delivering better design and quality, adding community and environment to its watch.
‘In a sense, Homes England is beginning to get itself involved in the softer side of housing delivery’, said Bennie. As someone who co-founded Argent and was heavily involved in King’s Cross, Freeman ‘has a hinterland which is all about mixed use life’, she added, and has been tasked to transform how the organisation operates, likely to be towards place, environment and community aspects rather than ‘just banging out numbers’. ‘His whole mixed use life vibe has to be a good thing’.
Freeman is about incentivising long-time thinking and with the suburb being the ‘pivotal working and living place’, should be encouraged to support that well and avoid ‘suburban friction’, said Bennie, while it should also help to solve the ‘cultural issue of the ground floor’, still misunderstood by housing deliverers. The final point was around quality of life issues, which should be used as measures rather than the more ‘technocratic’ Building for Life system.
Michael Cassidy, Chairman, Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, suggested that someone of Freeman’s background is right for the moment. ‘Homes England, if it is anything, has to be big picture, and big delivery’, he said. ‘This is all about upping the game for delivery right across the country, in different contexts’.
It is on the big policies like Help to Buy that there will be a difference in delivery of affordable and homes for purchase which this country ‘cries out for’, he added, perhaps feeding the market through a number of ways such as using a kind of government guarantee to double the length of the mortgage offer period for new property construction to 12 months.
Marc Vlessing, CEO of Pocket Living, presented to the Sounding Board on small sites against a context where 30 years ago, 40% of UK housing was delivered by SMEs, a figure which has dropped markedly to 12% today. In London between 2006 and 2016 there has been a 50% drop in small housing developments. Pocket has worked on new research with Lichfields at all developments up to 150 units for a three year period up to April 2020, analysing 10% of that and finding that the average period of planning determination was 60 weeks – five times longer than the 12 weeks that might be hoped for. Even once decisions had been made at committee, S106s took 23 weeks, on average. ‘We tried to analyse why this was happening, and affordable housing was the reason, again and again’, said Vlessing, with mixed tenure taking longest. Some 75% of the cases had affordability and viability as the main issues for delays, which are, for SMEs, ‘punitive’. ‘You become a plaything of the planning system, and you lose money’, he added. ‘So it’s no surprise that we haven’t got the SMEs out there anymore that we would like to see back in London and Britain more generally...The planning system is just asking far too much of these small sites’.
The report makes four recommendations to government, including that: Planning should be granted on principle for small sites smaller than 1ha which are well served by public transport and local amenities, where 40% of the homes will be affordable through a payment made in lieu of onsite provision of intermediate housing.
Finally, the session heard from LSE London director Tony Travers said that next year’s election is undoubtedly creating a political dynamic that was ‘not helpful’ and that it is ‘odd’ to have the former administration of City Hall in Downing Street. ‘People always think their successors do less well than they do’, he said, but more worryingly, it was difficult to see the political players in either place radically altering their behaviour. ‘With that in mind we are sort of in the world that required the creation of London First, back in the nineties, where the business voice does need to be able to have its voice heard and say: this is what London and Londoners need’.