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Shift in housing policy demands the right conditions

The prime minister described this week’s housing policy shift as the government “rolling its sleeves up and directly getting homes built”. 

Indeed, these latest initiatives further demonstrate the government’s intention to tackle the UK’s chronic housing shortage.

The move to directly commission housebuilding on publicly owned land by making parcels available to small, up-and-coming builders or development companies should stimulate growth, increase capacity and offer a wider choice of dwelling types and tenures.

A decade of mergers and consolidation has contracted this market segment, but if the conditions are right this policy shift could see emerging innovators thrive.

SME platform

Importantly, small and medium-sized entrants need to be supported into the market so they can develop the required capacity to build homes fast.

Providing the right platform to enable small players to succeed is essential. After all, few possess the resources to tackle challenges such as site-wide infrastructure, decontamination or flood mitigation that is common on public land.

“Providing the right platform to enable small players to succeed is essential”

Such sites are also unlikely to be part of an existing community, so the provision of transport and social infrastructure is crucial to bringing them forward.

Relying on smaller players to progress parts of larger sites independently could be risky, as the required level of co-ordination and investment is likely to be unaffordable for them.

Overcoming these complex issues during the government-led planning process would streamline both planning and delivery, providing developers with a speedy and de-risked start on site. The emerging permission in principle structure could be adapted for these sites.

An overseeing masterplanner led by a public sector body or through a public-private joint venture would help ensure the right infrastructure and transport investment is in place before large-scale sites are divided and made available to smaller developers.

Stand-out examples

Of the pilot sites announced this week, Northstowe already has these arrangements in place and Old Oak Common benefits from a development corporation.

“To truly address the housing shortage quickly, a broader range of entrants will surely be necessary”

Without such arrangements, introducing a multiplicity of development actors could lead to ad hoc housing developments, compromise the quality of proposed community developments and slow down delivery.

Introducing an agency or JV to plan, parcel and permit government-owned sites is critical if this initiative is to deliver ideal opportunities for smaller developers to pick up workable packages.

A focus on how smaller players can bring innovation to the market would create opportunities to try out new ideas such as self-build, custom-build and manufactured homes. Such diversification would be well-received by the design community.

But to truly address the housing shortage quickly, a broader range of entrants – including housing associations for social housing and shared ownership, as well as institutional investors for a diversified private rental sector – will surely be necessary.

A multi-tenure strategy is crucial to increasing supply.

Andrew Jones is practice leader, design, planning and economics, at Aecom

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