Inviolable viability

Right, are we all enthused and ready to go? Viability is dead: long live, um, something that looks a lot like it.

Before I am accused (again) of cynicism approaching apocalyptic levels, let me first say, the fact that the government are trying to do something about viability is positive. I’ll try and get into what I think it means in a bit, but given the amount of bluster about the policies I think it is worth actually trying to get down on paper what the government are proposing.

Under the current system, many local plans include a brief sketch on what requirements a site might have for affordable housing, education facilities, green space and other bits of infrastructure. Nowadays this is split between in section 106 agreement (which is negotiable) and in many areas Community Infrastructure Levy (which isn’t). But the real tooth and nail side of what is required for a site comes during the planning application, where the need for infrastructure, followed closely by the developer’s ability to pay for it out of the eventual sale of homes is bashed out.

The developer gets to use the price they paid for the land (however inflated that is by the prospect of planning permission) and lots of other bits and bobs go into their very detailed spreadsheet to prove their point. The local authority then makes a decision based on the agreement. If agreement can’t be reached within a set timescale, or if the application is refused because the developer’s won’t budge then it can go to an appeal where an inspector and, eventually, the secretary of state can decide upon the merits of the application. Parties who feel (legally) hard done by can apply for judicial review, which can and does quash decisions and demand a rehearing.

In the new system, first proposed last year and now laid out in slightly more detail, the major discussions about the viability of sites will take place during the plan making process. I’ve written before about this process; one of the positive things about centrally suggested targets is that the massively long-winded process of establishing housing need can be removed, which would have made the local plan process quicker. But reaching an assessment of infrastructure need and viability for every site included during the process and coming to an agreement of this with developers, is going to be a huge and time consuming ask. Developers will no doubt (and quite understandably, from a business point of view) use the local plan process to try and extract the best deal for themselves at this point, rather than further down the track.

Yes, in the end it is the local authority that draws up the local plan, but developers will go into the local plan examination (where a planning inspector in effect decides whether it is “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”) with all of their legal arguments, expensive lawyers and fabby dabby spreadsheets ready to prove their point. Those spreadsheets will now be public and use something approaching a set methodology, which is a huge victory for transparency campaigners. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that a small band of local campaigners doing this in their spare time will be able to outwit a company whose profit levels are at least partly based on extracting just this kind of victory. Many council planning departments, often stung by large costs if they lose judicial reviews or appeal cases, will be very cautious of pushing hard if they know they may not win.

Another good(ish) thing is that the land value being proposed for viability assessments is not the price paid for the land, but some inbetween figure. As Shelter have commented, given recent land sales have possibly been inflated by the current market, the new assessments might be higher than you might hope. It is a step in the right direction, but the wording- particularly that the land value should be set at “the minimum price at which it is considered a rational landowner would be willing to sell their land” means this could all fall down rather quickly. If that’s the case there is nothing to stop landowners working collectively to ensure prices remain high.

This all means that the local plan process becomes longer than it would have been and there is no guarantee this will lead to additional affordable accommodation. The government may be hoping land prices will fall as a result of this change, which seems hopeful and best and naive at worst.

The government are stating that once the local plan process is complete (however long that takes) that will be that. But of course, they have to (and to their credit, have) considered the other situations, for example when a site outside of the local plan comes forward. Or, indeed, the economic world changes significantly and developers are suddenly significantly more or less able to pay. In that situation local authorities will have to work with developers to assess or reassess these agreements.

There will be disagreements, claims will be lodged and eventually a set of precedents will be made about what counts as a change and what doesn’t. Unless there has been a big change in developer’s business plans this will then become the new normal. They will use the precedent to turn the drip into a flood. That’s not a criticism of developers- they are acting rationally. It is a criticism of the proposed system. It gives them an inch of wiggle room and expects they won’t take a mile. As with my previous post, I confidently predict we’ll be back in the same situation with viability and affordable housing within a few years.

BUT! The government have added a backstop- with a not very discreet threat for a system where “contributions to affordable housing and infrastructure to be set nationally, and to be non-negotiable”. Given my previous comments you’ll not be surprised that I like the second part of that. I would much prefer a system where the connection between overall viability, developer’s expectations of tidy profits and affordable housing is broken. I don’t see why it would make sense for this to be set nationally, when practically everything else in local plan making is, um, local. Neither Theresa May or Sajid Javid mentioned it in detail in their speeches, so I think this was only planned for certain eyes only. It’s a threat to developers of what could happen if the system doesn’t work and in my opinion a pretty idle one, much like the threat to end help to buy.

The proposals I sketched out in my previous post would be stronger than those being threatened by government and they should feel free to use them if they would like. But given I don’t think they have much intention to actually do this I won’t hold my breath.

So we have been promised another revolution only to see some generally positive but not exactly world-shattering reforms. Before too long we have to ask ourselves why this is? Do ministers over-sell proposals that they know are milquetoast? Are they convinced that one more set of changes will push the housebuilders over the edge to become the sort of civil minded operators the government want them to be? Are they making comments based on what they hope newspapers will report rather than what will actually make a difference?

The key issue, in a way, is that government is stuck. Changes since the late 1970s mean that the major housebuilders are the only people who can deliver at scale. The government seems willing to pay lip service to other forms of building, but know that these can only take off with either significant government investment, underwriting loans and subsidy (for small builders, community housing, housing associations, etc) or local government debt (for council housing).

Another option would be development corporations, often used for new towns but theoretically usable anywhere. This would involve local authorities, builders, landowners and trades coming together to create new homes. The corporation could be structured to prevent perverse incentives (including a risk of chummy contract-giving between the partners) and provide incentives for actual building. The builders wouldn’t like this as it threatens their ownership of large parts of the process, but it is something more akin to a revolution than some (admittedly positive) tinkering with viability.

The government are right that there is no silver bullet to ending the housing affordability crisis, but I do wish they would put away the rubber ones.

As a final note, is it worth remembering that the government has consistently said that the first report from the Letwin review will be coming with the Spring Statement next week. This wasn’t mentioned in either speech (Sajid Javid referred to the publication of the full report at the (Autumn) Budget), so I will be very interested to know whether something will be released and what it says.

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