Po-tay-to Po-taa-to, Letwin’s latest

Housing reports coming from all angles- how can a naptime blogger cope? Well, if you’ll let me, I think I will concentrate on the recent update from the Letwin review (or “build out review” as it is now apparently named). This is because it is the one commissioned by government and so the one with the highest potential for serious reflection from them.

If you’ve read my previous post on the launch of the review, you’ll know that my main concern was that we already had a welter of reports, reviews and recommendations from industry insiders, academics and politicians. What I would argue we haven’t had is the political will to redress the balance of power and financial flows between the different groups of people who are involved in the process, whether that is landowners, developers, housebuilders, prospective owners, prospective tenants, local communities or so on. This doesn’t mean that the state is being neutral, merely that it was not yet willing to actively change the existing rules; benefitting those who are already benefitting at the cost of those who were not.

So what is the latest from the review and what policies does it mean he might be coming out with in the budget? Is there a sea-change on the horizon or am I mixing my metaphors?

Sir Oliver has been to see some larger sites, including spending a trip visiting three locations in Cherwell. Indeed, outside the Ledsham Garden Village in Cheshire and a statistically fruitless trip to Solihull, the furthest north he went was Cambridge. I’m not one for drawing a random north south divide on a map, but that is pretty stark, justified by the draft report on the notion that the south east has the highest demand for housing.

There is a growing argument that different areas have different issues with regard to housing. What happens in London or South Oxfordshire might be different from what happens in Manchester, Bradford, Oldham or Gateshead- and they might even be different from each other.

Even with the same planning system issues relating to housing and land supply, skilled labour, incomes, access to financing (both for builders and prospective buyers) and so on will make a difference. The local planning system, especially as it is dependent upon supply (even more so if the housing delivery test comes in) makes this even more difficult to unpick. So staying almost wholly within spitting distance of London may make his statistical findings a little specific and mean he may have missed something going on elsewhere.  A big elsewhere, like almost all of the midlands and north.

Indeed, Sir Oliver is now fixed on the idea of looking almost wholly at improving delivery speeds larger sites. He’s been engaged in some pretty strong mythbusting- deciding that issues like utilities, most skilled trades and finances may make some difference, but they are not fundamental to slow build out rates. He has also batted away the suggestion that developers sit on sites with planning permission without building- holding sites as an asset to be sold rather than where they will build in the fullness of time.

Whether that means Sir Oliver has disproven (not at last, but once again) land-banking is taking place something else entirely. Indeed, he tries to unpick this, but it is understandably difficult because what people call “land-banking” is so flexible and fudgey that it can mean everything and nothing. I’ve had a quick check and I haven’t used it on this blog before now, despite writing quite a few times on housing supply issues and strongly on the actions of developers. It simply isn’t a helpful term because it is used so loosely. There’s a strong argument to be made that titles are swapped around before planning permission is given, but Sir Oliver feels that this is outside of his remit.

What Sir Oliver is convinced upon is that developers drip feed homes into the market in order to hold the price of properties level. This, he argues, is because they have paid for the site based on the current market rates for selling the eventual properties and need to recoup their money and expected profit levels. Call that land-banking or don’t, it is developers using the tools at their disposals to make a profit.

Without getting overly-detailed Sir Oliver is arguing that the current method of site valuation leads to the outcome of slow build out rates. If developers increased supply they would decrease prices, make less money and perhaps fail to break even. He also argues that a lack of diversity of both design and tenure means that builders are only working in one market (broadly: high value, repetitively designed, large-ish homes for sale) which means their actions affect this one small part of the wider economy.

I can happily agree with almost all of that. I’m not wholly convinced that increasing supply necessarily reduces price in the current housing market- it is a lot more complicated than a couple of intersecting curves in a perfectly competitive market. There’s a lot of pent up demand to get through first and people tend to borrow what they can (based on their deposit and lending rates) and bid based on what they can borrow. But here’s the thing, one person who is convinced of this is Dominic Raab, the Minister of State for Housing. He keeps referring to housing affordability and the panacea of increasing supply of housing for sale to resolve this. So is Sir Oliver advocating to change the method of valuation? Er, no.

Here we cut back to my concern from the earlier post– there seems to be an explicit worry that impacting on developer’s business cases (at least for their current homes) will send huge shockwaves through the economy. We have to accept this is possible, but we also have to consider if proposing to pay £110 million bonus to a single person is a sign of a well functioning economy? Is rebalancing away from a system with so much stacked in one direction so bad? I’ll put that another way, Sir Oliver seems intent on -at least in the short run- trying to improve build out rates whilst not significantly changing the existing relationships and hierarchies between those involved.

How likely is this to be successful? Well, that will depend on the policies he comes out with for the budget. The focus seems to now be on diversifying large sites. Not splitting them up, but making them able to attract a range of tenures and making more attractive, less cookie-cutter developments.

This weeks Onward report seems to be opening the door to much wider collective work- with councils taking a strong role in joining up the dots in large scale development. There is a sense I get from Sir Oliver’s report and the interviews he gave over the weekend that he may be minded to suggest something more collective in the long run- at least for very large sites. What that might be remains to be seen. It would most likely be welcome, but trying to square the circle of increasing delivery whilst defending builders margins may be impossible. On what side he falls could make the difference between a change and none.

It very positive to see Sir Oliver talking so openly about the role of social housing and the very high demand for this across the country. Clearly, somehow separating the speed of delivery of social homes from the slow delivery of market housing would be of huge benefit, both for society and general house building. How this is achieved is quite another matter, in particular if there is a wish not to see enclaves of social housing separate from the rest of a site. Local plans (or indeed government guidance) could have set percentages of different tenure types, with design matters being even more strongly part of local authority decision making. (Yay more long planning committees about brick finishes!) How likely this is to make any positive change will actually come about in appeal decisions. If the quantum of new homes outweighs any design or tenure issues -which is often how appeals decisions can be perceived- then it is more words for little effect.

One way to try and achieve additional quickly built social homes could be allowing the part payment of the Community Infrastructure Levy (or indeed a similar development tax) to be in land (valued at existing use) or completed properties (valued at affordable rates). Developers could pass over a section of the site to be built by the authority- or indeed sold to fund housebuilding elsewhere.

And finally, how much of this actually coming about is wholly dependent on quite a few different political processes. Will the current government still be here for the Autumn budget? Will legislative changes be passed given the amount of parliamentary time needed for Brexit? Will developers see whatever proposals coming forward as a threat to their margins, even if Sir Oliver has specifically designed them not to be? How in favour are developers right now? Will there be the focus and drive for accelerating delivery when it comes to the crunch? How will any changes to social housebuilding dovetail with the social housing green paper?

I have at least one comforting thought- land is the one thing that cannot really be taken off shore.