So far as I can gather, much of David Cameron’s success as Prime Minister relied on getting Oliver Letwin to actually cause policies to be implemented. To every “practical difficulty” that dreary old Sir Humphrey came up with, the indefatigable Sir Oliver could be trusted to provide an answer. Perhaps for the very reason that Cameron used him such a lot, his services have been in less demand by Theresa May – in fact he been relieved of Ministerial office.
However Letwin has not been entirely idle. Amidst concerns about “land banking” he was tasked by the Government with seeing what could be done to speed along the process of delivering new homes.
In June his draft analysis could not find “any evidence” that major developers are “holding land as a purely speculative activity”. Rather inconvenient politically as the Government would have rather liked the chance to give greedy property developers a bashing if some justified way of doing so had been offered. However the conclusion was not really surprising – the profit maximising conduct for a developer is to proceed with building.
Anyway, all was not in vain as Letwin did manage to work out the real culprit: the Government. The developers are operating within the constraints of the planning system. Letwin said:
“I found that the main reason developers are slow to complete building on large sites is that there is only a limited demand each year for the highly uniform properties they are building on those sites.
“My final report sets out some policy levers that government can use to increase the variety of homes on sites, so they can be built out more quickly.”
The report calls a change in the planning rules so that we see the sort of homes built that people actually want to live in – rather than “units” to meet some grand scheme that accords with the planning officer’s ideological whims.
“If either the major house builders themselves, or others, were to offer much more housing of varying types, designs and tenures including a high proportion of affordable housing, and if more distinctive settings, landscapes and streetscapes were provided on the large sites, and if the resulting variety matched appropriately the differing desires and financial capacities of the people wanting to live in each particular area of high housing demand, then the overall absorption rates – and hence the overall build out rates – could be substantially accelerated.”
“All large housing sites above 1,500 units must strive to achieve sufficient housing diversity to support the timely build out of the site and high quality development. Housing diversity includes housing of differing type, size and style, design and tenure mix. It also includes housing sold or let to specific groups, such as older people’s housing and student accommodation, and plots sold for custom or self-build.”
The indications have been that the Government will accept the proposals. James Brokenshire, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, said:
“There is no mission more urgent than making our housing market work, and building the homes our country needs.
“Sir Oliver has found that it takes 15 years to complete building on some of the largest sites, which is far too long.
“It is clear action is needed so developers work with us as partners to deliver 300,000 properties a year by the mid 2020s. We will consider the recommendations in Sir Oliver’s report to determine next steps to ensure we build the homes our country needs.”
The report declares “we cannot rely solely on small individual sites. This cannot be a question of ‘either/or’. We will continue to need more new housing both on smaller sites and on large sites.”
It is proposed that “a new National Expert Committee to be set up to advise councils on the different types of properties that should be offered on large sites; they would also handle appeals where there is a dispute between developers and local authorities”. It “would arbitrate where councils dispute whether developers are offering the right range of properties.” Of course whether it resulted in beautiful or ugly properties being built would rather depends on whether the “experts” appointed to the committee happened to prefer beauty or ugliness. It couldn’t be much worse then the “design codes” typically being imposed at present by municipal planners.
It would be naive to imagine that the imposition of dreary, standardised, uniform housing will easily be lifted. But this report is the latest evidence of rebellion. We are no longer so willing to shrug at the inevitability that new developments will be soulless.