In defence of local government

Over the last few weeks there's been much comment and speculation as to whether the government is going to meet its manifesto target of a million new homes by 2020 (it won't) and what the new occupants of No 10 and Marsham St are going to do to encourage an increase in the housing supply (not a clue).

Which got me thinking. As most of you will know house building has cranked up quite a gear to around 155,000 or 171,000 units if you include conversions. Brexit may dent that figure in the short term but the long term trajectory is certainly looking more positive.  

Over the last five years* that we have figures for, housing starts look to be a little over the half a million mark with conversions taking us well over.

What puzzles me and hence the question is this; if we had built everything or even just 80 to 90% of everything local planning authorities in England alone had given permission for in the same period we would be getting very close to hitting the Government's target. For four of the last five years, local government has given planning permission for almost twice the amount of housing that was actually built that same year.

At this point I'm sure many readers will be getting very hot under the collar and hurrumphing about duplicate applications for the same site, that I'm not allowing for the lengthy period large sites often take to agree the final details of the approval let alone be built etc etc. Even allowing for those factors, my premise still stands; local government looks to be delivering much of what is being asked of it yet we're still way off meeting the government's overall target.

So we come to my question: Why the huge differential when most reasonably educated people would assume if you've gone through the often torturous and expensive process of the planning process, why do almost half of applications fail to develop into reality? Speculative applications will account for some, detailed negotiations will eventually translate into housing starts and be counted in a later year, duplicate applications usually eventually get built. So what accounts for the discrepancy? And what needs to change so more permissions translate into actual houses?

This article was written by Frank Browne a former leader of Wokingham Borough Council and a member of our non-Executive board.

* Figures are based on HBF statistics and go up to the end of 2014 calendar year.