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Politics and Housebuilding over the last half Century

I have worked in planning from 1968. Since then, and indeed as far back as the immediate post war period, housing has been an issue with which various Governments have struggled. This article looks at the changes withing the planning system, but also the consistencies which have contributed to this struggle.

 The Labour administration of Harold Wilson, in a draft white paper Housing Programmes 1965-70, announced that ‘the government intends to give greater priority to housing than it had for many years. The rate of building will be pushed up as fast as resources and improving techniques allow. In 1964, 383,000 houses were completed (United Kingdom). The first objective is to reach half a million houses by 1970.’

 The 1964 figure was briefly exceed four years later, at 425,840, but by 1970 it had fallen to 362,220 and from 1971 onwards it has declined fairly steadily[1]; half a million homes per annum has never been achieved.

 Planning for housebuilding in the 1980s was set out in three circulars: Circulars 9/80: Land for Private Housebuilding, and Circular 22/80: Development Control Policy and Practice, issued as the first acts of the new Tory administration. These were followed by Circular 15/84 Land for Housing.

 The suggestion was that these circulars would ‘free up’ the planning system. The Thatcher Government sought to relax planning controls and introduce the imperative that there must be a continuous and adequate supply of land to enable housebuilding, suggesting that planning policies should reflect demand from the market. Housebuilding climbed gradually, to a peak in 1988.

 The two circulars of 1980 introduced the requirement for a five year land supply and for housing land and availability studies undertaken jointly by local authorities and the housebuilding industry. Circular 22/80 stated that in the absence of a five-year supply, there should be ‘a presumption in favour of granting planning applications for housing, except where there are clear planning objections’.

 So the matter of a five year supply and land availability has been a political hot potato since the 1980s. At this point there appears to have been some cooperation between housebuilders and local planning authorities, through Joint Housing Land Availability Studies. However, as time progressed the system lost any credibility as it became one in which decisions were best described as ‘planning by appeal’.  Local authorities unable to demonstrate an effective five year land supply found that Secretaries of State regularly ruled in favour of appeals brought by housebuilders.

 From 1988, housing supply dropped, mainly as local authority housing was reduced substantially, and has remained at a lower level.

 By 2001, however, the total number of new dwellings completed in England had fallen to a then record post-war low of 174,100, compared to almost 202,510 in 1990. Developers blamed the planning system for the slow-down.

 Planning Policy Statement 3 was introduced to put things right: local authorities were required to identify not merely an immediate supply of deliverable housing sites for the first five years of a local development framework, but a further supply of potential development sites for the next five years, together with more sites or general locations for growth for the following five years.

 PPS3 defined deliverable sites as those already available, which offered a suitable development location contributing to the creation of sustainable mixed communities and which had reasonable prospects of development within five years.

 In 2007, the Government sought to achieve 240,000 new homes per annum in England (following just 208,970 in 2006) But in 2007, new homes across the UK as a whole amounted to just 223,590 and even this figure has not been met in the years following.

 From the Coalition of 2010-2015 to the Conservative Government of today which followed it, we have had a relatively non-interventionist approach to planning. This is most recently exemplified in the promotion of greater freedom of permitted development rights. Paradoxically, this has tended to meet with the (traditionally more interventionalist) Labour Party’s approval.

 So, what are the common factors over the last 55 years? The objective of building more homes has not changed, and yet despite the numbers varying across the years, need has prevailed year on year. Another constant, and possibly the reason for unmet need, is that the politics of housebuilding has been consistently negative. As the comparison between the 1970s and 80s shows, deregulation is demonstrably not the answer, and the regional approach has proven the most effective way of delivering the requisite number of homes (the Duty to Cooperate is no substitute).

 Successive governments have tinkered with the problem but have been repeatedly diverted from bold decision-making by political expediency. This has been evident very recently in Michael Gove’s pandering to the Government’s backbench NIMBY brigade.  

 So what is the ongoing problem for housing and planning?

 It seems to me that there are two fundamental issues. Firstly, location and need for development, and secondly, the administration of the system to enable that need to be delivered.

 In the case of the former, location and need are predicated by demand in as much that each area should at least “consume its own smoke”.  Once need has been established, administrative requirements to deliver housing must be put in place. It is no coincidence that when administration was simpler, delivery was more effective. When I started in planning, the Encyclopaedia of Planning Law and Practice comprised three volumes. It is now running at nine.

 The sad reality is that successive Governments have been long on rhetoric (as well as administration) and short on action. In the blame game that ensues, the politicians blame the housebuilder, and the house builders blame the system administered by the politicians: the proverbial vicious circle.

 It is obvious, therefore, that to expedite delivery, the approach must be collaborative, however unpalatable that might be. The draft white paper Housing Programmes 1965-70, stated:

 “Now for the first time, the Government, the building societies and the builders have discussed together and agreed on the need for forward planning of housebuilding, and for continuous collaboration to ensure a steadily rising programme. For the first time the pre-requisites of forward planning, including adequate incentives and flexible controls, are being formulated. It should now be possible, with the new arrangements for regular consultation and review among all the interests concerned, to ensure a steadily rising house-building programme. From this start a comprehensive plan covering all facets of housing policy can be evolved.”

 Is this not the approach we should have been following for the last five decades?

[1] Source: Statistica: New homes completed by private companies, housing associations and local authorities in the United Kingdom (UK) from 1949 to 2020

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