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Hurry slowly – getting the economic boost we need from housing supply

Grainia Long

October 2012

This month I've been:

Daniel Kanheman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ and Ian McEwan’s ‘Sweet Tooth’ for lighter relief.

HBO’s best new series since ‘West Wing’ – ‘The Newsroom’... I’ve fallen in love with Sam Waterston all over again... If I was 30 years older...

September’s guilty pleasure – working my way through the final layer of the box of Butlers chocolates I brought back from holidays in Cork. Never leave Ireland without them.

So – the summer is past and we have been welcomed back to our desks with a bang. Early September saw the announcement of our new housing minister Mark Prisk and a long-trailed package of reforms to housing and planning. Great news surely – the first post-reshuffle announcement was for housing and the Prime Minister’s interest in housing continues unabated.

But the really good news is more fundamental. For many months, the CIH has been calling on government to put housing front and centre in its economic strategy and the announcement last week showed that government has listened to professionals and is intent on boosting supply.

What’s more, the announcement that government will guarantee debt for new-build market and affordable housing shows that it is prepared to share some risk and enable providers to take advantage of government’s lower cost of borrowing.

Housing professionals shouldn’t take this for granted – a debt guarantee for up to £10bn, while much rumoured – was not an easy win. That it has gone to housing – and includes affordable housing – is a major boost of confidence for the industry and an opportunity to improve supply that will require all of our efforts.

So the case for housing and its economic impact has been made and the response has been the right one. The next question looms – how do we deliver homes while achieving the best social and economic impact?

Government is interested in housing because its capacity to enhance the economy is signifcant. But speed is essential – to achieve the economic boost that government needs, its injection of capacity must result in homes on the ground within months. Herein lies the problem – government has just spent two years devolving power to local communities to give them a greater say in the decisions that affect their communities. But experience tells that while meaningful involvement of communities is valuable it is often painfully slow.

Hence some of the changes announced to the planning framework. There’s a palpable frustration within central government that planning decisions are taking too long. Eric Pickles’ words were clear: “with power comes responsibility… to deal quickly and effectively with proposals”.

Strengthening the role of the Planning Inspectorate may help – only time will tell – but speedier decisions won’t necessarily guarantee the right decisions – and the right decisions are what we need.

Government and housing professionals must therefore tread carefully – we must get the balance right between the economic and social impact of housebuilding. And in the coming months and years professionals should rightly expect to hear much more on the environmental impacts of housebuilding, and may find themselves in unfamiliar territory when arguing the case for new supply.

Whatever the future holds for housing and planning, we are in a much better place in autumn 2012 than we have been for some time. Confidence in the housing industry is growing, and confidence is key.

So let’s use that confidence well and do our best to avoid polarised debates on land use and planning – let’s have a mature dialogue on how we build the homes we need. Learning from the Olympics, let’s inject a civic pride in building infrastructure for the benefit of all.