HBF Policy Conference 2019: ‘Confronting the housing crisis’, John Stewart memorial presentation

On March 26th, Christine Whitehead spoke at the Home Builders Federation (HBF) Policy Conference 2019. Her presentation, entitled ‘Confronting the housing crisis’, was the first in what is to become an annual series of memorial presentations honouring the life of the late John Stewart, HBF’s former Director on Economic Affairs. The conference brought together different industry stakeholders to discuss key issues around planning, modern methods of construction, the current and future housing market and diversity. Details of the event, photos, and the event’s presentations can all be found here on the HBF’s website. Other presenters included Stewart Baseley, Mark Farmer, John Tonkiss, Andrew Whitaker, and Lucian Cook. There was a short video about the problems of mental health in construction and how organisations can help their – and the presentation of a large cheque to the Industry charity the Lighthouse Club.

Christine’s presentation focused on three key themes that John Stewart had cared about, namely: (i) Help to Buy, (ii) Large and small sites, and (iii) planning contributions and levies. Click here to download the PPT presentation.

On Help to Buy Christine noted that despite the media antipathy towards Help to Buy, the product has been doing what it was designed to do. Evaluations of Help to Buy show that additionality has been significant not just in economic terms but also in the confidence it gives to purchasers. But as noted by the Secretary of State later in the day, concerns over developer profitability, leaseholds, and standards are also very real.

With regards to the size of sites, Christine remembered John being one of the first people to recognise that local authorities often found it easier to concentrate on a small number of larger sites – especially if they were some distance from local voters. Yet diversity in scale is important not only because it provides a wider range of options for purchasers but also because they provide opportunities for small and medium-sized builders to grow.

Christine then talked about planning contributions and levies and particularly the strong government push towards CIL rather than Section 106. (Click here to read some of our previous work on S106 and CIL). She highlighted the importance of S106 in enabling negotiations between developers and local authorities which take account of the specificity of larger building sites. From the government’s point of view CIL is seen as both more certain and better because it covers all types of development. Yet in reality there have been many changes in rates and no-one knows when – or even if – the promised infrastructure will be forthcoming. She also noted some of the drawbacks of both approaches which require significant LA capacity to implement, reinforce regional disparities and only tax new developments despite the benefits of infrastructure and development being shared by existing owners.

Looking more generally Christine argued that the government’s aspirations, and those of the GLA, to deliver massive increases in housing numbers lack realism because of lack of demand backed by finance or subsidy. (Click here to read our commentary that speaks specifically to these issues within the GLA in the context of the London Plan’s examination in public.) She underscored the contradiction of emphasising delivery within a market led system which makes it extremely difficult to generate the necessary step change in output levels without structural changes with respect to both industry competence and the availability of subsidy. Modern methods of construction provide one possibility but there are issues especially with up-front costs and lack of capacity (click here to read our interview with Victoria Pinoncely, co-author of Centre for London’s report on modern methods of construction). Returning to John Stewart’s insightful contributions, Christine concluded by quoting from the book he published in 2002 ‘Building a Crisis’, where he said: ‘current house building trends will produce 1.5 million fewer dwellings than are likely be needed over the next 20 years…’ and noting ‘He was so right then and would be even more correct now!’


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