We look at planning and social housing

“This is a very pertinent issue now for us,” says Anu Vedi, group chief executive of Genesis Housing Group. “You can’t hide from the reality that, although there have been increases in affordable housing starts, it is not anything like as much as the government had wanted.”

In fact, the number of social housing starts by housing associations such as Genesis are down 19% to 3315 in the first quarter of 2005 compared with the last three months of 2004 (4092). They are also lower than the corresponding period five years ago (3570).

In addition, the Department of Trade and Industry recently reported that construction orders for public housing in the three months to February fell by 37% on the previous three months. The Housing Corporation has committed £3.3bn of grant over the past two years and will spend a similar sum by April 2008, but this funding hike has not yet translated to more construction work.

So when the government wants to build an extra 10,000 units of affordable housing each year by April 2008, why aren’t social housing starts rising? Charmaine Young, regeneration director for housebuilder St George, accuses the usual suspect: the planning system. “From the developers’ point of view, in terms of homes built through the section 106 process, the downturn is due to difficulties in the planning and appeals process.”

As a result, Young feels that the picture painted by last year’s increase in affordable housing starts (see chart) is about to change. “[The problems have] been going on for the past 12 months and are now feeding through into starts. We have seen a resurgence of communities on brownfield and greenfield opposing developments.”

Vedi agrees. “There is a constant log-jam that one experiences with planning – it is not just the bottleneck that people sometimes say. This has been a particular problem with the smaller 100-150 unit stand-alone schemes that housing associations tend to build. Things are only marginally better than two years ago [when the ODPM’s Communities Plan was launched].” He attributes the problems to the increased density of many schemes, the frequent requirement to mix land use and “local political issues”.

How much teeth do bodies like housing and planning boards have? I can only see continuing frustration

Anu Vedi, Genesis Housing Group

Vedi says his association will still build 1000 homes each year for “the next few years”, but admits that the work will take longer than he would have hoped. He also worries that the regional bodies charged with implementing the housing growth plans in the South-east don’t have enough clout to get schemes built. “How much teeth do regional bodies like housing and planning boards have compared to local planning authorities? If this is not improved, I can only see continuing frustration.”

A further factor slowing up building rates is the European Union, Young says. “A number of housing associations have had problems with having to go back out to tender as a result of having to adhere to the EU procurement process. It has certainly contributed.”

But Steve Douglas, interim deputy chief executive at the Housing Corporation, says that his market intelligence tells a different story. “As is often the nature with these things, planning becomes an issue around election time and refusals go up. We are not worried about the numbers of affordable housing units in the pipeline across the country. The capacity is there and we just need to work to get that through planning more effectively.”

But Young sees pressure in the system that will have to be released. “The government is in a difficult position as it wants to bring forward more development and yet also wants the community voice to be heard. Something has to give.”