The Conservatives never fail to seize an opportunity for a construction metaphor.
As well as fixing the roof while the sun is shining, the government is now ‘fixing the foundations’ with its productivity plan.
The overall intent is laudable.
By recognising the role of housing in supporting national growth, the government hopes to improve flexibility in the labour market and increase UK productivity.
But focusing solely on eliminating planning permission for brownfield sites is tantamount to fiddling at the edges of the UK’s chronic housing shortage.
Ceasing planning constraints on brownfield sites will address one hurdle but the real blockage is that this type of land is often contaminated or lacks good infrastructure to make it economically viable to develop - hence the long debates on post-permission section 106 payments.
“Focusing solely on eliminating planning permission for brownfield sites is tantamount to fiddling at the edges of the UK’s housing shortage”
And are these sites desirable places to live?
Detached from society
Former industrial land is often disconnected from vital social infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, and good transport connections.
Failing to address ‘placemaking’ through creating new housing isolated from existing communities and unsupported by infrastructure will not make a dent in UK productivity – the very problem government wants to tackle.
Moreover, much of the UK’s brownfield land – particularly the larger, strategic sites – is already identified.
This new policy may unlock smaller, difficult inner-urban brownfield sites but won’t give a significant boost to sites coming forward.
Tackling planning permission in isolation, coupled with this narrow focus on brownfield sites, ignores the single biggest barrier to solving the UK’s chronic housing shortage.
There is simply not enough land coming into the system.
In Aecom’s manifesto for the London City Region, Big, Bold, Global, Connected – London 2065, we calculated that growth in the region’s population will lead to a shortfall of one million homes by 2036 unless new sites are identified and building is accelerated.
The shortfall for the UK will of course be higher.
As a country we urgently need a more holistic approach that both speeds up delivery and improves the quality of housing.
“Stop sidestepping the Green Belt issue”
Housing’s role in the productivity plan would be boosted by two additional moves.
Time to get productive
First, a fundamental review of density in the UK’s cities.
We urge the government, mayors and authorities to revisit our suburbs and their contribution to growth.
Suburbs created in the early 20th century need a ‘reboot’ to re-evaluate how they can contribute to 21st century cities.
Secondly, stop sidestepping the Green Belt issue.
I would like to see a targeted review of the Green Belt, particularly at tube and rail stations in and around our metropolitan areas.
The UK needs a more joined-up approach to identifying locations for new communities that is linked to unlocking public sector land and future infrastructure investment.
This should be a pressing issue for government or devolved mayors of city regions to address in planning for growth.
Bold, even radical, new approaches are required.
Government must dare to think the unthinkable to deliver housing on the scale the UK so urgently needs.
Otherwise good intentions risk being marred by practical realities.
Andrew Jones is Aecom practice leader, design, planning & economics