League tables for housing developers, warns Barwell

Major housebuilders could be named and shamed for not building enough houses.

barwell

Housing minister Gavin Barwell told MPs that the government is considering publishing a league table on the performance of developers showing how many homes they are building.

This would enable councils – and activist investors – to hold the major developers to account and end claims of landbanking.

Barwell discussed the idea during evidence to the Commons communities and local government committee on the recent Housing White Paper and plans to speed up housebuilding.

The minister revealed the idea of fining developers for not turning sites into homes had been ruled out.

But league tables – including their record of turning sites into developments – “should be a determination” that allows councils assess the record of developer in building out permissions.

“There is a balance to be had. If it was too draconian, the effect would be chilling,” he said.

The minister accepted developers needed to have land in reserve to be able to start sites as a development finishes. But he wants to reduce the time taken from purchase to build by the main private developers which is currently five years.

He also questioned if developers were too risk averse with sites. On a site with the potential of 1,000 homes only around 70 would be built in order protect the company’s financial position.

Barwell said: “The main way that we reduce landbanking is to speed up the planning system. But my real concern is once you start.”

Other plans include a major review of how taxes on developments are decided.

His department and the Treasury are looking at a nationally set charge that would be locally collected locally spent by councils.

Barwell revealed a review of the Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 agreements will be included in the autumn Budget.

“It’s something we need to address,” Barwell said. “There is a lot of dissatisfaction with how the current system works. But what we don’t want to lose is the localism element of how money is spent.”

There was good news for local authority planning departments which have been hit by staff cuts caused by austerity cuts.

Barwell said the government was looking at enabling councils to increase planning fees to cover the whole cost of running their teams. Where some councils had major regeneration projects, they would not only be able to raise more money from applicants but his department would look at targeted intervention where some LAs need support.

“I’m clearly on the side of getting more money spent on those planning departments. Local authority planning departments are under-resourced,” he said.

The biggest controversy in the White Paper had been over the future of greenbelt land.

Committee member Mary Robinson asked: “It’s clear greenbelt is something that is causing a lot of issues. In the White Paper it’s being looked at again. What circumstances would you envisage local authorities being able to re-designate land?”

Barwell said the government was clear it could only happen once all other reasonable options such as brownfield sites and surplus government land had been considered.

He said: “I certainly know how my residents feel about it. At the moment the National Planning Policy Framework doesn’t define what exceptional circumstances are. It does give examples of what development in greenbelt might be appropriate. The secretary of state and myself and the government as a whole feel it would be helpful to clarify this.”

He added: “I think there’s also a lot of potential to look at densification. People tend to think tower blocks. It doesn’t have to mean that.”

Barwell also said it was vital communities were involved in any changes and said it was up to the council involved. But he also called for a wide discussion about what the greenbelt was for.

“One of the things that is interesting about the debate that we have about greenbelt is that people think it is environmental protection. It’s an anti-spool policy. Measured on that test it’s been very successful.

“If local authorities do re-allocate land from greenbelt they should look to secure some improvement to the greenbelt that is left.”

The minister also raised concern over councils in rural areas choosing to protect existing communities from development. Barwell said his most frustrating meeting since appointment had been with a community group after a district council banned any new housebuilding.

Committee chairman Clive Betts challenged him over housebuilding targets which the government looks unlikely to meet.

He asked: “How many, over what time and what quality?”

Barwell replied: “The White Paper is a key statement. There are clearly some things that can have an effect reasonably quickly. I’ve tried throughout this document to be honest. I hope all members of the select committee would accept that when it comes to house numbers it is not wholly within the government’s control.”

The minister spent last week holding a series of regional roadshows with industry professionals to get their reaction to his plans.

Responding to questioning from Labour member Rushanara Ali, he hinted at the government taking a more regional approach to the types of homes that get built.

“If there’s one learn from those events is the extent to which housing markets differ around the country,” he said.

“It is the case that the share ownership prod varies across the country. There are parts of the country that need all of the products because the ratio is different.”

Barwell added design was critical to tackling local opposition to new developments: “People see something and say it could have been put up anywhere in the country.”

He also challenged claims the White Paper needed a single big idea to solve the housing crisis.

“The conclusion I’ve come to is that there is no silver bullet. The only solution is a series of interventions at every stage.”

He also pledged stability and an end to continuous new policies announcements: “The government constant chopping and changing policy doesn’t help. What I want is a period of policy stability.”

Barwell repeated his call for all elements of the housing sector to up their work to build more homes: “We’re going to need a strong coalition to get this job done.

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