Meeting Demand

Business Weekly / 30 July 2020

As a result of the lockdown in March the housebuilding industry quite literally downed tools. It is estimated that this impacted sites intended to deliver 250,000 eagerly awaited homes to the nation. Construction is a sector that has been hit hard. Already in the midst of a housing shortage, the impact of Covid-19 on the housing supply crisis is an issue that the government has put front and centre as sites began to re-open and extend operating hours in an effort to catch up. Lockdown has brought into sharp focus the importance of the houses being built in the UK. In addition – the current housing landscape continues to pile on the pressure. At the end of 2019 the National Housing Federation, the voice of housing associations in England representing almost 800 housing associations and providing homes for around 6 million people, released a report on the housing shortage crisis. It showed that over 8 million people throughout England live in homes that are unaffordable, unsuitable or insecure. This affects people from a diverse range of backgrounds and geographical locations. The National Housing Federation concluded through its research that the UK will need 340,000 new homes built a year with 145,000 of these being social homes. A tall order indeed! As we begin to focus on post lockdown delivery there will be debates on the economic lessons to be learnt from the coronavirus pandemic and what needs to be done to repair the UK economy. In the short term this may be by ending Sunday trading restrictions or relaxing the planning laws to aid the hospitality industry to re-invigorate the economy. It is a case of now trying to increase the supply to meet with the demand and this includes the short-term fixes needed as well as the long-term fixes to supply issues that have been there for a while. Prior to lockdown, commentators had pointed at two ways to help alleviate the housing crisis. Firstly, easier access for small medium enterprises in construction to quick and flexible finance and secondly, changes to the current planning system so that the increased demand for housing can be met in a timely fashion. It is on the planning point that we may see a more innovative approach, such as that seen with changes to permitted development. That will be essential if the Government is to stimulate supply to meet with the demand, as it is having to do in other areas. There have been various temporary measures (and some would argue well overdue) taken by the Government in an effort to make it easier to operate the planning system during the pandemic and an acceptance that the system needs to keep operating so that it can play its part in the economic recovery. One outcome may be a reinvigorated relationship between promoters of strategic land and local planning authorities. Promoters have always had to take a long-term view but now perhaps more than ever there is the opportunity for promoters and local planning authorities to work together to solve the need for sites for future housing. Local Authority funding has been cut and resources are tight. Spending on planning has fallen by almost a half and recruitment and retention severely hampered. Not a good background against which to try to improve a process which has been labelled unpredictable and slow. Smarter and more positive collaboration going forward would seem to be the key. Housing attitudes may change and much of the current commentary on the housing market suggests that people are being more introspective and as a result many are looking away from cities and towns towards larger gardens and nearby open spaces. This could see a move away from the urban infill sites to larger less dense sites where not only space but also sustainability and quality of life come to the fore. As with many aspects of life impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, we wait to see what the Governments’ planning response will be to the implications of the pandemic on land supply and housing delivery and how the planning system and construction sector reply.


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