The housing secretary Robert Jenrick has defended the government’s proposed changes to the planning system in a wide-ranging speech centred around boosting home ownership and the role housing can play in the country’s COVID-19 recovery.
In a pre-recorded speech shown at the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH)’s virtual Housing Festival, Jenrick criticised the ‘kneejerk reaction of some’ that the government’s sweeping planning reforms risk ‘choking off’ the supply of new affordable homes.
Jenrick poured cold water on gears that proposals to replace section 106 agreements with a new flat ‘infrastructure levy’ will cut the amount of funding available to councils to boost affordable housing stock, saying the new levy will in fact raise revenue.
Stressing that the reforms will give local authorities greater planning powers, Jenrick said the government will ensure that developers continue to contribute to the supply of affordable homes.
“Through the new infrastructure levy we’ll raise more revenue [for affordable housing] than we do now – [that’s] an explicit commitment the government has made,” Jenrick said.
“We want [mixed-tenure] communities… That, in the end, is the definition of a community. In all, issues around affordability are higher than ever on our agenda.”
Jenrick recognised the spotlight COVID-19 has placed on housing’s role in health and wellbeing, acknowledging the plight of ‘those less fortunate, stuck in poor, cramped accommodation… struggling to pay the rent or who, worst of all, have no home of their own at all’.
While admitting that the lockdown has ‘significantly’ set back housebuilding, Britain can emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic by building more homes ‘at scale and at pace’ and helping more families and first-time buyers to get onto the housing ladder, he said.
Here, Jenrick drew attention to recent announcements such as the new £12 billion Affordable Homes Programme (AHP), the prospectus for which has been published by Homes England today, and the associated 1,500 home First Homes pilot.
Jenrick also confirmed a minimum target for the use of MMC in the new AHP, which will be reviewed annually and increased ‘if market conditions allow’; the new £1 billion Building Safety Fund; and the £30 million announced earlier this week to help local councils unlock surplus land for development.
Also mentioned was the long-awaited Social Housing White Paper, which Jenrick confirmed he is committed to bringing forward this year.
While revealing few concrete details about the White Paper, Jenrick said that residents and their voices will be ‘at the heart’ of the reforms.
“We made the decision to pause it during the pandemic because we wanted it to achieve the prominence that it truly deserves and that tenants in social housing have the opportunity to hear and understand quite how significant this paper and the new changes that it will bring forward could be for them,” Jenrick said.
“The paper will set out measures to further empower tenants and boost the supply and quality of social housing with greater redress and better, more meaningful regulation of the sector.”
Closing his speech by confirming previous announcements about funding for rough sleepers and the Future Homes Standard, Jenrick said he will continue to support councils and housing associations to ‘get Britain building’ and deliver the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
In response to the speech, Tracy Harrison, chief executive of the Northern Housing Consortium (NHC) was encouraged to hear about the ‘truly national’ nature of the AHP, £7.5 billion of which will be delivered outside London.
However, Harrison wanted more to be made of housing’s role in the net zero agenda as she called for the government to confirm more details about the £3.8 billion Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, saying that the £50 million allocated for the pilot of the fund falls ‘far short’ of what’s needed.
Olu Olanrewaju, chair of Leadership 2025 and associate director at Altair International, acknowledged it would be ‘churlish’ not to welcome the increase in AHP funding but said the lack of emphasis placed on increasing the number of social homes was of ‘great concern’.
He also expressed disappointment that Jenrick’s speech failed to clearly acknowledge the issue of inequalities relating to COVID-19.
Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), focused on the government’s planned extension of permitted development rights, pointing to a disconnect between Jenrick’s ‘warm’ language on unsuitable accommodation and the specific proposals outlined in the government’s planning white paper.
She agreed that greater emphasis on social housing is needed but warned that council housing stock will continue to fall unless Right to Buy is also addressed.
Image: The housing secretary Robert Jenrick speaking at the Chartered Institute for Housing (CIH)’s virtual Housing festival. Credit: CIH