January 2017 feels like Housing Month in a Whitehall keen to generate good news. A series of Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) policy announcements, starting on the New Year bank holiday, have set the scene for the long-awaited Housing White Paper to be unveiled later in the month. Can the government’s ambitions be achieved – and what of the tug of war between national priorities and localism?

Promises, promises

With DCLG churning out new policy at the rate of a ticker-tape parade, it seems a good time to look back at what promises the 2015 Conservative manifesto contained on new housing. ‘Helping you to buy a home of your own’ got a whole section of the manifesto to itself, including the following pledges by 2020:

  • 200,000 ‘Starter Homes’ – homes to be sold at a 20% discount to first-time buyers under 40
  • 275,000 new affordable homes
  • Protecting the Green Belt, with ‘locally led garden cities and towns in places where communities want them’

Starters’ orders

After inviting applications last year, the government has announced 30 partnerships between the Homes and Communities Agency and local councils to build Starter Homes on brownfield sites, with a £1.2 billion Starter Homes Land Fund to get things going. The winning councils are those that demonstrated an ability to move quickly, with the government insistent that construction begins in 2017. A clear plan, but 200,000 Starter Homes by 2020 is significantly more than anyone thinks likely to be possible.

The 20% discounts will be available on properties up to £250,000 outside the capital, and £450,000 in London, leading some to criticise the proposal for being likely to help “people who are better off and already close to buying,” in the words of Shelter’s Roger Harding.

The cost of living

Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State at DCLG, pointed to Thursday’s announcement that £7bn is to be spent on affordable housing as evidence the government will help “families who are just about managing.” The money is available to housing providers looking to start building affordable housing, with the government confident it will help a total of 200,000 new homes to be built. Developers looking to build shared ownership, rent to buy or affordable rent properties can apply for £4.7 billion in previously announced grants that is projected to contribute towards more than 150,000 new homes. Ambitious numbers – and another ambitious timetable.

Green and pleasant land

Since the days of the Coalition government’s localism agenda, there has been constant stress on the fault line between local decision-making and national priorities. The 2015 manifesto contained a pledge to ‘protect the Green Belt’, blaming top-down planning under the previous government for threatening green space. Crucially, it promised ‘locally led garden cities and towns in places where communities want them’.

This week, the government announced funding for 14 new garden villages and three garden towns, spread across the country. They are set to test the principle of community support, as with the proposed North Cheshire Garden Village in Handforth. There Cllr Barry Burkhill, who represents the relevant ward, has accused the government of “breaking the boundaries between us and Greater Manchester with this bribe and calling it by a fancy name.” Nor will the roughly £400,000 of funding per site on offer necessarily get the schemes far, as Argent’s Peter Freeman has pointed out.

White Papering over the cracks

This sudden burst of activity suggests that the long-awaited White Paper on housing is not far off. Mr Javid is on a media offensive, making clear that he knows we need to build a lot more houses. Some of his Conservative colleagues, including in Cabinet, are focusing instead on the protection of green spaces, talking of “anger and disappointment” with new housing in green spaces. Nor are Conservative council leaders struggling with declining budgets and increasing housing targets overly sympathetic, with complaints that “to make the small local planning system bear this enormous obligation on housing [is] like putting 20,000 volts through a small hamster.”

To build the average of 250,000 homes per year that Mr Javid talks about will require a huge effort. The burden of meeting the target will fall on the private sector, which will require continued support from the government. Crucially, there must be clear communications so that local communities understand the need, how it will be met without pushing stretched infrastructure to breaking point, and how people can help to shape the future of their communities.