Last month, the government said it plans to tackle the shortage of new homes in England. Its pledge follows reports that planning permission has been granted for more than 423,000 new homes in the UK that are still waiting to be built.
Theresa May said she will make it harder for developers to hang onto land for which permission has been granted without building on it – so called ‘land banking’.
“I want to see planning permissions going to people who are actually going to build houses, not just sit on land and watch its value rise,” the Prime Minister said.
Suggested ways in which to force developers to build include making it easier for councils to compulsorily purchase land that hasn’t been built on and giving them the right to charge council tax on unbuilt units.
Needless to say, developers deny land banking. A spokesman for the Home Builders Federation said: “Housebuilders do not land bank. In the current market where demand is high, there is absolutely no reason to do so.” Quite.
This is a typical example of politicians trying to score cheap points by blaming a soft target, in this case developers. In the real world, the situation is rather more complex.
These 423,544 unimplemented permissions are measured when the first condition is discharged. Some permissions have dozens or more conditions that may take months or even years to discharge before the developer can start building.
And this is where the real problem lies. Many of these permissions are stuck in the planning system due to local authorities having too few staff to deal with the outstanding conditions. Years of cutbacks has left planning departments chronically short staffed.
If the government is serious about more houses being built it will start by giving local councils a bigger budget for more planning officers. We know of one client who is in the ridiculous position of being unable to progress his development because the local council has no fire officer.
One of the UK’s largest house builders, Berkeley Group, has given a number of reasons why it is impossible to boost the housing supply. One is the complexity of the UK planning system, something all developers agree on.
It also blames the cost of moving house, current mortgage lending limits, economic uncertainty and the changes to tax rules for buy-to-let landlords.
There are other reasons, too. It goes without saying that it only makes sense to build homes if people are going to buy them. If housebuilders meet government targets every year and build hundreds or thousands of homes here, there and everywhere, would the take-up rate be fast enough? Are there tens of thousands of renters all over the country, ready with their deposits to snap up new homes? Will there be jobs available near these new homes? And, if not, will there be good enough transport links between these new homes and people’s jobs? I doubt it. The government needs to look at the bigger picture before taking cheap shots at developers.