Whose crisis is housing supply?

As part of this seminar series we have been asking a series of PhD students and Early Career Researchers to contribute to the discussion by producing short blog posts providing their perspective on each seminar. Our first contribution is from Richard Dunning from the University of Sheffield (see his academic profile *here*)

Whose crisis is housing supply? – Richard Dunning, University of Sheffield 

Who hurts as a result of the housing supply crisis? The emerging consensus is the poor, the marginalized, the young, those with work limitations, and increasingly the middle classes. Who though is responsible for alleviating their stress? Who is going to own the housing supply crisis?

In the chocolate box of policies, Localism is the fudge. It’s the political grand narrative, facilitated by and in turn facilitating Neighbourhood Planning. A narrative that hides hard underlying truths with a chocolate-flavoured democratic coating. Localism shifts responsibility from the national to the neighbourhood scale. The national government no longer chews on hard decisions, nor is the local authority enfranchised to, instead local communities (with varying amounts of experience, energy and social capital) take on the responsibility of determining the location of homes through their Neighbourhood Plan. The combined outcome of these plans, it is assumed, will meet the nations’ housing supply needs. Fudge mastication it turns out is a multi-located problem.

To realize the metaphor, with no national plan, who is going to own the national housing crisis and who is going to take responsibility for the solution to a local housing supply shortage? The local community or the local authority? The local government or private builders? The individual or the community? If the latter, which community and who gets to draw the boundaries around it?

In an eclectic mix of presentations at the Neighbourhoods, Planning and Housing Supply seminar an array of insights into potential solutions were put forward. However, the focus of most papers was on practical limitations. Whether the limitations of current housing policies, the practices of private housebuilders, institutional investors, self-builders, co-housing or the philanthropy of middle class activists. These valuable insights did provide new evidence of the complexity of housing supply. However, as atomistic approaches focusing on practical limitations they could never combine to a single credible alternative, nor answer the question about responsibility.

One paper took an alternative, macro approach. Antonia Layard’s overview of the legal framework for planning and housing targets considered the layers of legislation and responsibility. Is the law capable of answering the question “who owns the crisis?” No. Legally it’s as clear as a contaminated brownfield site. NPPF numbers overlaid by Local Plans, with a mesh of Neighbourhood Planning thrown on top results in no discernible change in housing supply nationally. Nor does it provide a clear responsibility for defining targets or delivery mechanism, resulting in a large increase in work for lawyers, litigation against local governments and antithetical judgements.

This legal complexity provides evidence for part of the reason why the housing supply crisis is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. In a complex institutional arrangement of social relations, actors and governance structures policy makers tweaking at the margins (without a comprehensive goal) is unlikely to create a joined up solution, however locally embedded it is. Where no entity is taking responsibility for the solution an ambition of 250,000 or 300,000 new homes per annum looks hopeless and largely meaningless

Localism, despite some if it’s opponent’s rhetoric, is not an inherently evil concept. It does, however, obfuscate responsibility for the housing supply crisis. Pitting: private developers against local authority; neighbourhood against neighbourhood; and local democracy against local government.

Local solutions can come from local forums; local people do have insights into development locations and housing type. However, these solutions will only act consistently in the nations’ interests if there is a wider holistic framework for determining housing supply.

Discussions about this new framework should not begin with practicalities, rather they require a moral and political focus. We need to debate who should be responsible for providing the solution to the UK’s housing supply crisis before we discuss tweaks to the system. Only by understanding who is responsible can a clear framework be created to facilitate significant housing supply.

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