A new Commons watchdog report warns the dominance of large volume homebuilders must be reduced to help fix a ‘broken’ housing market and build the homes the country needs.
The Communities and Local Government Committee calls on government to support small and medium builders and ensure councils have the tools they need to make an effective contribution to solving the housing crisis.
What is the second housing related report from a Commons committee this week wants a ‘more competitive’ market served by a large number of companies of different sizes.
At present, the committee notes, the eight largest construction firms build more than half of all new homes .
The Committee recommends improving access to land and finance for smaller builders and says government should reduce the risk for builders by preparing sites for development by providing infrastructure and planning permissions.
There is also support for increased building by local authorities and housing associations – seen as helping protect the sector against economic downturns but having almost ceased.
The committee says borrowing caps on councils’ Housing Revenue Accounts are limiting their ability to build and should be raised or, in the areas where housing affordability is at its worst, removed.
Also recognised is the need for more rental homes, greater assistance for modern methods of construction, and improvements in further education to address the growing skills gap, described by the Committee as the biggest challenge facing the sector.
Committee chair, Clive Betts, said: “The housing market is broken, we are simply not building enough homes. Smaller builders are in decline and the sector is over reliant on an alarmingly small number of high volume developers, driven by commercial self-interest and with little incentive to build any quicker. If we are to build the homes that the country so desperately needs, for sale and for rent, then this dominance must end.
“A successful housing market is a competitive one and Government should support smaller developers if it wants to increase the housing stock. This includes earmarking land, improving access to finance and reducing risk by proactively preparing sites for development. Local authorities have a key role to play but have not been given the tools they to make an effective contribution to solving this crisis.
“Innovation must also be encouraged and we need to finally get to grips with the major challenge of ensuring that the industry has a much-needed supply of skilled workers, without whom this country’s housing crisis cannot be addressed. The Government’s promises are encouraging, but their implementation must be closely scrutinised.”
Small and medium builders
The Committee found that smaller builders struggle to access land for development as local plans predominately earmark large sites only suitable for volume builders. The Committee welcomes plans in the Housing White Paper to encourage councils to identify smaller sites and sub-divide larger ones but says Ministers must make clear what powers will be available to ensure this happens.
The report identifies difficulties in accessing finance for small and medium builders, which are seen a higher risk. The Government should look to learn lessons from the German model of support for SME companies, which uses a state-owned development bank to protect lenders from liability, while providing low rates to customers.
Methods of modern construction and custom and self-build
The Committee urges the Government to play a more active role in supporting the growth of modern methods of construction. This includes sponsoring a single, recognised quality assurance mark to give lenders, builders and consumers’ confidence. The Committee also champions custom and self-build homes and says an approach seen in the Netherlands, where people self-commission homes on publicly-owned land, should be considered in the UK.
The report points to the growing skills crisis and calls for concrete proposals from Government, particularly with regards to improving further education routes into the construction industry. The importance of workers from the European Union is also raised by the Committee, which warns that following the Brexit vote, large numbers of the already-stretched workforce face an uncertain future.
The Committee is concerned that the Housing White Paper effectively weakens protections for the green belts in the National Planning Policy Framework as the ‘exceptional circumstances’ could now include any local authority not building enough homes. The Government should publish clear guidelines.
Development land market
The development land market is so competitive that developers pay inflated prices and seek to recover costs by increasing density, reducing affordable housing and building slowly to keep demand high. The Committee’s successor should examine the case for public intervention.