The Housing White Paper, published today (7 February 2017) recognises the potential for custom build (and self build) to contribute significantly to the Government’s drive for significantly more house building in England. Best of all, it recognises that the overall housing market model is not working effectively to deliver the homes we need, either in terms of quantity or quality.
Measures in the White Paper provide plenty of support to custom builders, and look like attempts to tackle many of the problems that put people off.
Obviously I’m pleased to see so much support for custom build – this is undoubtedly the most supportive Government in decades – but the real delivery of large-scale custom build depends largely on the implementation of these rather broad statements on the ground. Among many local authorities there is a resistance to custom and self build (and housing in general). How will the Government ‘encourage’ them to think again?
The measures to tackle the housing crisis from the developer end are, I suggest, likely to fail to deliver great results. Speeding up the build phase through the greater take-up of off-site methods of construction is, in my view, a red herring. Any student of housing developments from the single plot to the larger estate can see that homes, once started, are built out very quickly, usually ready for occupation in a matter of months. Speeding this up to weeks helps, of course – as does the fact that many of these off-site methods place energy efficiency and build quality as important as speed. But it won’t get more homes built, and it won’t improve design or occupational quality.
A system that relies on a series of sticks (with occasional carrots) to force so-called ‘fat cat developers’ to build homes on the sites they are landbanking only really tackles the symptom, not the underlying cause. Developers will only build out as many homes as they can realistically sell in any area to maintain the market price. Flood the market, and end values fall. No longer can or should we rely on this trickle-down supply approach to housebuilding in this country – after all, looking at other developed countries, it is the exception rather than the rule.
Instead we need to liberate the demand. According to a recent IPSOS/Mori poll, something like four million of us would like to build our own homes, to our own design and requirements. Yet only around 10,000 homes are built by their owners each year – pitifully low compared to everywhere else in the world. If Department for Communities and Local Government could somehow truly liberate this demand, then they bypass two key blocks to the housebuilding dilemma – namely relying on market-led developers, and the natural negativity by local people when they see big developers building estates of homes on the edge of ‘their’ village.
The housing market is indeed broken, but does today’s White Paper truly fix it? This is a concrete set of firm proposals that will make a good start on changing the way we build houses in this country. Implementation is key, but this is a step in the right direction.