Housing Targets Should Be Questioned – Says Eminent Housing Expert (And MP’s Agree)

The latest Wharfedale & Airedale Review Development (WARD) networking meeting, featured as its guest speaker Professor Ian Cole from the Centre for Regional Economic & Social Research (CRESR) at Sheffield Hallam University.  Professor Cole is a government advisor on housing and has advised the Department of Communities and Local Government over a number of years.  He has also been engaged in research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and is currently engaged on a project for that organisation.

Professor Cole gave an interesting presentation (download) of the current trends in the housing market to a packed audience of community representatives and local councillors.  The meeting was also attended by two local MPs, Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) and Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West).

Prior to Professor’s Cole’s presentation WARD’s Chairman, Dr David Ingham, highlighted two major concerns upon which all those present were commonly agreed.  The question of over optimistic target numbers for housing in the Yorkshire areas LDF’s Core Strategies and confidential site allocation talks that had been held between city planners and local councillors.  The important issue of transparency in planning for the area was not being upheld.  Dr Ingham also pointed out that the so called Strategic Housing Market Assessment that was used as the basis for the target numbers in the Leeds LDF had been conducted by GVA Consultants, who were in fact a firm of property consultants – hardly an unbiased assessment upon which to base housing needs for Leeds for the next sixteen years.

Professor Cole began his presentation by drawing a comparison between the UK’s housing needs in 1954, which was dealt with by a government led large scale council house building programme, and the current housing needs crisis with which the present coalition is attempting to deal by the dangerous relaxation of planning laws.  Professor Cole said there was a need to focus on effective demand and that, as in 1954, there should be more social housing than private housing.  He warned that we should be wary of household projections such as those imposed by central government on local authorities.  These patterns are culturally and financially shaped as well as statistically determined.  Housing targets in LDFs are likely to be wildly inaccurate.  Another problem was one of defining ‘affordability’ and ‘affordable housing’.  The definition of these terms is by no means clear cut.  Referring to Leeds, Professor Cole stated that there were high commuting inflows at the present time and that in the medium term regeneration of the more depressed areas is most unlikely.  He claimed that developers would continue to push for land in North East Leeds and along the A65 corridor as their favourite sites and that this would result in a loss of community identity and would also result in transport and other infrastructure being subject to unsustainable pressures.

Professor Cole also pointed out that for the major developers there was no recession and therefore no excuse for not building the 400,000 houses across England and Wales for which they had already obtained planning permissions.  Dr Ingham stated that for Leeds the figure is 22,500 and for Bradford the figure is 15,500 planning permissions where not a single brick has been laid.  As examples Professor Cole pointed to the following developer profits in 2012:-

Barratts:         Profit increase of 159% – Revenue up 14.1%

Cala Group:  Profit up 96% – Revenue up 18%

Redrow:         Profit up 55% – Revenue up 6%

Galliford Try: Profit up 80% – Revenue up 17%

These figures scarcely point to a shortage of capital inhibiting developers from building on the sites they hold with permissions granted.  The idea of a land tax on undeveloped land with planning permission was mooted as an incentive to developers to go ahead and build.  However, this idea has been proposed previously by governments of both political persuasions and, for various reasons, has failed to be introduced.

As the meeting wound up our MPs made the following comments.  Stuart Andrew was concerned that the housing market should be considered in conjunction with general economic development.  He said, “A substantial manufacturing organisation in his constituency was looking to expand but simply could not do so locally as all the space which might have been available had been turned over the residential development ….. Central Government could not and should not be trying to determine what goes on locally, and it was short-sighted and inappropriate for local authorities to be constructing residential properties in locations where there was no employment.“

Greg Mulholland said, “The predominance given to the five year land housing supply is a major issue, and is giving developers a green light, to the frustration of planners and local people.  High-lighting the five year housing targets as Professor Cole has said is causing local planning authorities to focus on those targets and little else, and there is no concrete evidential basis for those five year targets.  It is the case that we need to build more social housing but it should be for the people who genuinely need it and not for those who can afford to be operating in the open housing market.”  He also voiced concerns about the implications of the Growth & Infrastructure Bill and urged the meeting to look at it and read the analysis from CPRE.  After that, they might consider the potential threat to local amenity and green-space and bring their concerns to the attention of their MPs.

The meeting concluded with a consensus that Professor Cole’s presentation had been most informative and some of the issues he had raised most strongly supported community concerns about current residential development across the UK and Wharfedale and Airedale in particular.