BLOG: New PM Liz Truss must adequately resource the planning system

Liz Truss has a monumental “to do” list in her in-tray when she heads back from Balmoral after meeting the Queen today and officially becoming Prime Minister.

We are faced with a crumbling NHS, an energy crisis, rising costs, war in Europe, a housing crisis – the list goes on.

Both she and Rishi Sunak regularly addressed the housing crisis and the property industry while they battled out “the longest job interview in history”. How much of that was electioneering, and how much was genuine ambition, will become clear in the next few months.

While I would never claim that a solution is easy to find, there are some fairly straightforward steps that the new PM could take which would make a significant improvement.

The first is to adequately resource the planning system. Clearly it is not perfect (what national system is?) but it is easier to repair it than to design a completely new structure.

It is predicted that there will be a five per cent drop in housing building in 2023 purely down to a log-jammed system. In our region, approvals will be down by 39 per cent. There is no quick fix, but allowing local authorities to adequately recruit and staff their planning departments would be a good start. That could be funded – at least in part – by ring-fencing planning fees so they have to be re-invested into those operational areas of LAs.

The new PM has also talked about scrapping housing targets, which she described as Stalinist. However, if you remove targets it will inevitably result in a drop in performance. If local authorities are not held to some account around planning approvals, they will simply resource other areas which do have targets attached. That is just human nature but if less homes are built, the prices will rise. It is supply and demand economics and she studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford so will be well aware of that!

In the run up to her election, she has also said she is keen to take control away from central government because, in her view, local communities know what is best for them and what they need. While that may be true in some policy areas, I am not sure it is when it comes to housing. How many people vote for homes to be built on fields opposite them?

Additionally, we can see higher interest rates coming down the line and that will put the bottom rung of the property ladder further out of reach for many people and we need a meaningful and effective help-to-buy scheme to ease that issue. There is one proposed but it is pretty weak and a more robust scheme is needed.

That is not a political issue – it is a social issue. There should be sufficient housing for people to live in adequate homes and the market therefore needs steering in that direction.

One step that could do that and would help see smaller housing and brownfield sites developed, is an incentive to smaller builders and developers. Smaller companies do bring something different and, if conditions allow, can develop those smaller infill and brownfield sites, often in urban areas,  into us homes for local people.

At the moment they have to go through the same processes as the national homebuilders but there have been suggestions that smaller and brownfield sites could have different planning conditions which would allow them to be developed.

The large national housebuilders will not seriously look at sites which delivery less than 70 or 80 homes and that is leaving some perfectly good sites undeveloped. Often, they are in urban areas and they just sit there not bringing an economic or housing benefit to anyone.

Trying to give smaller companies the chance to deliver those sites is something that the Mayor of the West Midlands Andy Street did, at one stage, put forward and certainly it would be very helpful to the industry, the economy and society.

When an industry sector becomes a political football, the only people to benefit are the politicians, and this issue deserved to be more than that.

Truss has already outlined that her mantra is “deliver, deliver, deliver” – and she can do that in the building and housing sector with a few sensible, practical steps.

I am not holding my breath!

Eleanor Deeley, Joint Managing Director