Last week’s new housing statistics from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government may have gone slightly unnoticed coming on the same day as Theresa May outlined her proposed Brexit agreement to ministers, triggering a sharp fall in housebuilders’ share prices.
While the statistics showed new housing numbers have shot up 78% from the relative doldrums of 2012-13, when the effects of the financial crisis resulted in a decline in completions, year-on-year figures for 2017-18 only showed an increase of 2% on 2016-17. There is a danger that housing delivery is plateauing.
The Budget did contain an important loosening of planning rules, which may have an impact. Permitted development rights (PDR) remain an important tool for developers looking to bring forward housing, and the sharp decline of PDR office-to-resi conversions in the housing statistics is eye-catching. The numbers of office-to-resi PDR conversions fell by 6,196 from 17,751 in 2016-17.
Clearly, after an initial wave of applications the number of viable sites has begun to dwindle. The government has sought to address this by extending PDR to certain retail properties – both to boost housing supply and stimulate high-street footfall.
But there are bigger changes on the horizon. The Letwin Review sought to find solutions that would improve housing supply, having acknowledged the lack of evidence of so-called land banking by developers. The numbers certainly suggest that developers are not holding back from delivering housing once planning consents have been given.
The government’s response to Letwin is expected in February 2019. It will need to ensure it does not stymie, or undo, recent progress by increasing the complexity of the planning system. The 300,000 homes per year target remains an extraordinarily tough challenge, one that can only be met with a sensible and sustainable approach to planning and development.