Recession calls for housing rethink

The economic downturn provides the chance for a radical reassessment of UK housing delivery, reflect Martin Willey and Michael Napier.

The recession offers a golden opportunity for a radical review of housing delivery in the UK, concluded the RTPI general assembly meeting in Liverpool on 15 July.

Attendees agreed that a new objective is needed, in line with the European Liaison Committee for Social Housing's aim that "everyone should have access to a decent, affordable, carbon-neutral home, in an economically and environmentally sustainable community that provides the opportunity for them to fulfil their potential".

Greater regulation is required, in terms of quality, affordability and tenure. But public authorities should not only assume a regulatory role. They should place an emphasis on direct intervention through such means as Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) investment, particularly alongside the private finance initiative, the transport innovation fund and community land trusts. Authorities should match regulation with incentives and share knowledge of planning solutions.

Public funding is increasingly regarded as an investment capable of generating a return, although it may not be achieved until the market has recovered. A shift in attitudes to housing needs to be fostered. At present, homeownership is regarded as the condition to which everyone should aspire. Instead, the benefits of renting housing should be promoted, drawing on international experience, especially from Europe.

People require more choice in housing. There needs to be a clearer focus on the demand for housing and a more flexible response to supply. The planning process offers a key way of achieving this aim via adjustable local development frameworks (LDFs) and, significantly, the promotion of multi-tenure solutions from applicants.

The standard UK top-down approach needs to be balanced with local and regional strategies. Communities should be empowered to meet their housing requirements with the planning process as the optimum vehicle to achieve this.

As new housing rarely provides more than a one per cent increase in the total stock, existing housing plays a far greater role in meeting needs. Questions over how to manage this stock, how to bring it up to standard and in what circumstances it should be replaced require urgent and detailed attention. Although this is not easy, LDFs could increase awareness of the opportunities to change existing stock to tenures that are fit for purpose, tackling overall housing needs.

The HCA's single conversation explores a range of infrastructure, regeneration and community activities, drawing on priorities set out in key local plans. It will advise on issues of sustainability, public and private funding, land value capture and the community infrastructure levy, which should inform the spatial planning process.

In the process of covering a wide spectrum of views, from public ownership to optimistic market recovery, the assembly highlighted the need for the RTPI to continue to work up practical solutions to tackle the UK's housing needs.

Martin Willey is RTPI president and Michael Napier is former RTPI member services director.

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