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Landbanking, Landgrabbing and A Very British housing Crisis

20/02/18
Landbanking, Landgrabbing and A Very British housing Crisis
Rebekah Paczek takes a look at what both parties are proposing to tackle in the housing crisis

Housing, housing, housing – has said many a new Prime Minister with all the conviction of someone who genuinely believes they have the silver bullet which no one else has ever thought of – only to shuffle out of office several years later having delivered precisely zip to improve the state of the crisis.

With the recent elevation of housing to the official portfolio of the Secretary of State, and a Housing Minister who appears to actually have an interest in, and possibly even (maybe) an understanding of, the housing market, are we on the cusp of genuine positive change? Even the media has started taking more consistent notice – an article in the Times recently actually pointed out the difference between greenfield and greenbelt (although it was only once, and they probably didn’t inhale so it doesn’t count) What brave new world is this that we find ourselves in?

Whilst it is premature to break out the bubbles and don our collective high vis jackets, it is worth taking a look at what both parties are proposing behind some of the headlines given that both have a real prospect of forming the next government.

Landbanking

Ahhh, that old chestnut again. Another government, another enquiry into landbanking. One thing both Labour and the Tories have in common is that they are convinced that housebuilders are stockpiling land to preserve profit. This presents a conundrum – not helped by at least two landbanking enquiries that I know of concluding that there is no evidence of landbanking in any systemic way across the sector. However, it is a good news headline.

Oliver Letwin is leading the current Government Enquiry into landbanking, which suggests that they are taking it seriously as an issue given his relative seniority within the party and his economic leanings. We can only hope that it is wide-ranging enough to look at all of the issues surrounding the time it takes to implement consents and get planning, rather than just a telescopic focus on ‘hoarding’ land.

The majority of housebuilders have a pipeline of consents or sites in planning, this is not the same as a landbank and we are in real danger of those two states being conflated. The entire premise of the enquiry also misses the point that housebuilding is a market driven and private sector business. Housebuilders are not going to landbank as it costs too much money, but neither are they going to flood the market with a product which reduces the value of that product and therefore reduces profit (worth mentioning that a lot of pension funds of ‘ordinary people’ are invested in this profit) . It’s the economy, stupid.

Labour are proposing a use or it lose it approach which will enable government to take the land away if they don’t deliver consents within a prescribed period of time. This is likely to be exceptionally difficult to enforce as the criteria which will be needed to make a legally watertight case for a housebuilder or landowner deliberately not acting on a consent will have to be stringent.

Conservatives also have mooted a similar approach although with less detail on the bones – we are expecting the spring clean of the NPPF and expected accompanying planning announcements to give more detail on this. Oliver Letwin is leading the current Government Enquiry into landbanking, which suggests that they are taking it seriously as an issue given his relative seniority within the party and his economic leanings. We can only hope that it is wide-ranging enough to look at all of the issues surrounding the time it takes to implement consents and get planning, rather than just a telescopic focus on ‘hoarding’ land.

Landgrabbing

It was recently announced that Labour would introduce a policy which compulsorily purchases land at a nominal value rather than allowing landowners to profit from an assessment of the value of land post-consent. The idea being that this will stop the inflationary speculation which takes place currently.

Nick Boles, for the Conservatives, proposed something not too dissimilar – although there is currently no indication that this is being seriously considered at Central Government.

The problems with this ‘landgrabbing’ policy are multiple (and certainly longer than the list below):

Politicians seem to think that landowners are a small group of people and not a coordinated voice – by that they mean that it won’t negatively affect votes. However, this woefully underestimates how many small landowners there are, how many pension funds are dependent on this type of value, how many universities cross fund and how many organisations such as the NHS make up for the massive shortfall in funding by utilising land in this way, similarly, how many not for profit organisations reinvest sales receipts into the running of their organisation.
It fundamentally challenges the concept of private ownership and creates a legal minefield in how this is administered and implemented.
Errr, without wishing to rain on the parade of the government – there are huge amounts of land already in public ownership which should be available for development on low land costs but which government/public sector are singularly failing to bring forward. So, how on earth, is government going to be able to implement this anyway??
This is not straightforward but can former DCLG Minister and current Shadow Housing Minister John Healey sort it out for the Labour Party? At least he has some experience and expertise and is on the moderate side of the party so a good face to present to a sceptical industry. His proposal for a Sovereign Land Trust to support local authorities is actually the beginnings of a well-thought out policy and may be one that the Tories will see how it develops before deciding which bits to cherry pick to create a more moderate policy which sounds less like a proposal for the nationalisation of land ownership.

Greenbelt

Both parties are pretty much aligned. It is sacrosanct and must never be built on, except when maybe it isn’t and it can be. Brownfield should come before greenbelt, except when brownfield is in the greenbelt and then it is mainly fudged by all parties and usually the media.

Basically, no politician is prepared to say that greenbelt, that post-war policy, should be relaxed or even just reviewed. It is regarded as too politically toxic. What will happen instead is that individual local authorities will be left to accept that they need to relax greenbelt in some circumstances and then have a potential battle with a government who may call-in applications if public pressure is enough but will probably largely try not to get involved as they desperately need the housing numbers.

However, there is a recognition on both side that the way in which people currently engage with the planning process causes problems and allows the NIMBY lobby to dominate the debate.

Estate Regeneration

Labour has been leading the charge – no one mention Haringey – on opposing estate regeneration in its current form. With cries of ‘regeneration not gentrification’ the focus appears to be on having all of the community facilities, all of the ancillary development, all of the affordable (read social rent) housing and minimal private housing. This presents obvious issues. First, the private housing pays for all of the other stuff; Second, if you just want affordable housing you go back to the bad old days of segregated estates and effectively ghettoise those who rely on social housing; Third, if a policy/development makes no economic sense then it won’t be delivered, so you won’t get gentrification but you won’t get regeneration either as there will be no money to invest.

Ultimately, the party is in a bit of a pickle on this one with support in principle for estate regeneration but a real conflict with how it can and will be delivered. Can former DCLG Minister and current Shadow Housing Minister John Healey sort it out for them?

Whilst the Tories are by no means on the same page on this particular policy, they are clearly concerned about continuing to lose vote share to Labour (certainly within London) and recognise that estate regeneration and densification of development in inner city areas is a key issue for many people. To date, the focus has tended to be on how existing communities are engaged, relocation and rehoming strategies and phasing.

Will we see tenant ballots legislated for by both parties, or will this remain a Labour policy only? If the Tories can begin to make inroads into the Labour vote in inner cities then they may stand a chance of retaining some key Councils in May and, eventually, regaining a majority at a future General Election. However, that is a big if at the moment.


Planning Changes

Really only the Government to look to on this one. After the Housing White Paper, no Housing Bill has appeared. However, we are now expecting a social housing green paper and a series of (potentially major) changes to the NPPF expected around about the time of the Spring Statement – so yes, that will be in the middle of MIPIM, deliberate or coincidental? You decide!

Watch this space…

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