Give us the tools to finish the job

Over the last two weeks we’ve seen an increasing focus on why the houses the country needs aren’t being built anywhere near the same level that local planning authorities are granting permission.

One of the explanations given is that commercial housebuilders are controlling the amount of land being released in an attempt to keep prices buoyant, rather like De Beers controls the release of diamonds, or OPEC used to control the amount of oil pumped out of the ground.  As is so often the case, it’s not the only reason and central government would be foolish to beat up the housebuilding industry when Westminster and town halls have a greater role to play in delivering the government targets.


Next week, when the Chancellor stands up to present his first Autumn Statement,  we should expect to see the government announce a plethora of measures to intervene more heavily in the housing market, particularly around the ‘affordable’ end and the social housing side. 

Earlier this month we saw the Ministry of Defence release its review of the Defence Estate (covering a total of 2% of the country’s land mass) with an aim of releasing land for development to deliver some 55,000 new houses over five years.  Work across other departments should yield further land for the same aim. 

Whilst a helpful and necessary measure, the Government needs to do more in freeing up land for development, the housebuilding Industry is required to help address the issue of ensuring there is enough labour and skills to build the houses (made more difficult with the BREXIT decision) as well as looking improving production methods such as more innovative approaches around the prefabrication of quality houses etc.

Local government needs to be given the tools to maintain and improve still further its performance in giving planning permissions.  Two areas immediately come to mind; attracting and retaining more good planning officers and equipping councillors with the tools to deal with the all too often toxic issue of new housing in their ward.

The first could be helped by allowing councils to increase planning fees to accurately reflect the true cost of processing applications.  If a similar approach was taken as the building control service where costs can be covered but no profit allowed, the council could invest in new technologies and good staff to improve the service and help meet the expectations of developers and their varying pressures.

The second revolves around the issue of councillor skills.  Some handle the pressure of proposed and actual development well, but many don’t and struggle to play their role in the community when a planning application rears its head.  Improving skills around communication, advocacy and negotiation could all help.

This list is by no means exhaustive and we would be interested to hear your thoughts on this subject too.

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