In 2001, Labour made some big promises on housing, planning and regeneration and John Prescott held major conferences across the UK to prove he was serious. But did the government deliver in its second term?
Housing: Some victories
The government promised to reduce by one-third the backlog of sub-standard housing by 2004, cut the use of bed and breakfast accommodation and help key workers buy their own homes.
On the whole, the government has done well. The target to cut the backlog of sub-standard housing by 2004 was met. But the jury remains out on whether the government will meet its target of bringing all social housing up to scratch by 2010. The social housing private finance initiative has moved at a snail’s pace with just four projects out of an initial batch of nine signed. Moves to transfer council homes to housing associations able to raise private capital for refurbishment work has also encountered some setbacks, notably rejection by tenants of England’s biggest council, Birmingham.
Homes completed per year, 2000-2004
All but a handful of families with children are now out of bed and breakfast. The target of housing 10,000 key workers has been met, but the programme has had to be revamped after it was found that the properties being offered were unaffordable to many of the public-sector workers they were aimed at. Criticisms that giving key workers help to buy on the open market was merely pumping more demand into an already overheated housing market, combined with figures showing house completions plunging to a record low in 2002, led to the government’s surprise move to dramatically increase housing supply in 2003’s communities plan. According to the ODPM, the rise in output since that low year is 23,000 to 184,600 completions in 2004. However, the Barker report said that a rise of 141,000 was needed to reduce housing inflation to 1.1% a year – between 2001 and 2004, prices in England and Wales leaped £65,000 to £182,920.
The growth area plan was not mentioned in the party’s manifesto, but is nevertheless warmly welcomed by House Builders Federation chief executive Robert Ashmead, who says that the government and the industry are “by and large” now signed up to a common agenda of increased supply. Anthony Dunnett, former chief executive of English Partnerships and the South East of England Development Agency, says: “More has been done in the past 10 years than in the previous 30.”
Planning: Some defeats
The only thing more difficult than understanding the British planning system is changing it. The Labour party felt it had no choice but to make the attempt because it was dragging back the national economy.
The question was put like this: why did it take 10 years to get Richard Rogers Partnership’s design for Heathrow Terminal 5 through planning when the same architect’s larger design for Madrid airport was built in half the time and for half the cost?
Meanwhile, the housebuilders were complaining that “planning is still the biggest delay facing the production of new housing in Britain”, as Alan Cherry, chairman of Countryside Properties, puts it.
Labour’s reform was intended to make the system “faster and fairer”. However, its Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill was not exactly a triumph. Key elements of it were so badly drafted that the ODPM took the unprecedented step of withdrawing the legislation from parliament.
Major housing schemes refused permission per year, 2000-2004
Another move was to create a £350m pot of money for “planning delivery grants”, which councils could apply for if they met certain targets, such as time taken to reach a decision. This seems to have had mixed results. Although the number of planning applications decided within 13 weeks has risen 18 percentage points to 52%, the number that were passed fell 16 points to 66% a year.
There is now a consensus that the planning act will do little to improve these figures. For one thing, it has made the system even more
user-hostile. The sheer number of documents that councils will be obliged to produce will create a bureaucratic quagmire, and the obligation to consult communities at an early stage rests on an optimistic opinion of the public’s interest in strategic planning.
There has been little, if any, progress on the issue of planning gain. The only concrete move has been a few tweaks to section 106 agreements, which have just been consulted on. More far-reaching proposals to replace negotiated section 106 agreements with a tariff were jettisoned following a strong backlash from the industry, but may be revived in the form of Kate Barker’s planning gain supplement.
Regeneration: Still struggling
Regenration dominated Labour’s thinking on the built environment in its first term and remained central in its second. It reaches into hot-button political areas such as street crime, the growth of the underclass, as well as more structural factors such as the distribution of the benefits of Britain’s buoyant economy and the improvement of public health and education.
The good news for the government is that Britain’s regeneration is being propelled forwards by the country’s economic growth, for which Gordon Brown can claim some of the credit. It is this growth that is providing the private investment, without which nothing can happen.
The government is also to be applauded for its tightening of planning policy in PPG6. This has ensured that an increasing share of new commercial and residential development has been taking place in towns and city centres. The proportion of homes developed on brownfield land has climbed to two-thirds of the total, but a big job remains to be done: English Partnerships last year found that there had been little recent decrease in the country’s stock of derelict brownfield land.
Amount of brownfield land in England available for development 2001-2003
Source: National Land Use Database
On the fiscal front, a stamp duty exemption for commercial property in deprived areas was brought in at the beginning of Labour’s second term. However Brown withdrew this in last month’s Budget. And another parliament has passed with no movement on longstanding demands to equalise VAT on new-build and renovations.
Then there is the complexity of the sector. Regeneration is as much about society as commerce, and it relies on public and private sectors working together. The problem is that even experts find the business of obtaining public money, complying with regulations and consulting the public bewilderingly complicated. The government has done little to simplify the situation.
The government has focused instead on improving the urban quality of life by tackling “crime and grime” with two pieces of legislation to combat anti-social behaviour. At the same time, it has given CABE a remit to improve the quality of neglected public spaces, although it has been less forthcoming with hard cash for environmental improvements.