What Letwin's focus on housing variety means for planning

The interim findings of a government-commissioned review has concluded that providing a greater variety of homes on large sites could boost home-building rates, but some observers express doubts about implementing this under the current planning system.

Letwin: review leader has advised ministers that a wider variety of housing types could speed build-out rates
Letwin: review leader has advised ministers that a wider variety of housing types could speed build-out rates

Last week, former Conservative cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin published a draft analysis document outlining a number of conclusions from his inquiry into build-out rates for approved housing developments. Letwin’s first interim report, published in March, identified housebuilders’ ability to control sales rates as a key problem because there were "limited opportunities for rivals to enter large sites and compete for customers by offering different types of homes at different price points and with different tenures".

Developing this point in his latest report, Letwin says that if housebuilders or other providers were to offer more housing of varying types, designs and tenures – "and indeed more distinct settings, landscapes and streetscapes" – on large sites, build-out rates could be "substantially accelerated". This, he says, is because different products – such as affordable or private rented sector homes and specialist homes for nurses, students and retired people – cater for separate rather than overlapping markets. Were builders to increase the variety of their products on individual large sites, his analysis suggests, this could accelerate build-out rates without impacting on house prices.

Mike Kiely, chairman of the Planning Officers Society, is on a panel advising the Letwin review. He described Letwin’s conclusions as "placemaking friendly and good design friendly", but warned that there is a limit to what the planning system could secure in requiring different styles of homes. "It is quite hard to work out what is needed," Kiely said. "You can work out the tenure needed from economic data and you can work out house sizes needed from demographic data, but how do you work out the different tastes people have for different housing styles?"

Royal Town Planning Institute head of policy and research Richard Blyth said the institute agreed with Letwin’s conclusions, adding that encouraging councils to build more housing alongside efforts to increase custom build and self-build are key ways of achieving greater variety. Andrew Whitaker, planning director at trade body the Home Builders Federation, said the industry is "happy enough" to look at the idea of providing a variety of housing products and types "on very large sites". But he warned that this could not be extrapolated to all sites. "If we are looking at around 1,000 units, then the recommendation is reasonably appropriate and the industry can work with that. But if local authorities try to impose that on small sites, then we will start running into trouble," he said.

The Letwin review has yet to propose how a requirement to increase the variety of homes on large sites could be implemented. Daniel Bentley, editorial director of think-tank Civitas, said the current system of valuing development land means this could be difficult to achieve in practice. The current degree of homogeneity of houses is "part and parcel of a system in which developers bid up the price of land to levels at which more imaginative design standards and architectural niceties are squeezed out", he said. "It is this system that has got to change."

Homes England’s executive director for land Stephen Kinsella and Redrow Homes’ group planning director Julian Larkin will be speaking about housing delivery at the Planning for Housing conference in October. For more details, visit planningresource.co.uk/conferences/planningforhousing2018

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