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Responding to the housing crisis from a place perspective - How a new government can transform promises for housebuilding into sustainable and unimpeded development

“In the spirit of Clement Attlee,” announced Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner in a speech given to delegates from across the housing and infrastructure sectors at the annual UK Real Estate Investment & Infrastructure Forum, “our approach to housebuilding will be both proactive and strategic.”

Not a day later, Rishi Sunak called a general election and instigated the race for Labour to buckle down and finalise their manifesto, bolstered by the confidence of the polls but facing the very imminent threats to British infrastructure, livelihoods, and prosperity that have been swamping the Conservative government for years.

Among those threats, the housing crisis, as Rayner rightly pointed out, lies at the centre of the economic stagnation holding the country back from stability and progress. And the sluggish planning system, like the smallest matryoshka doll in this stack of political plights, lies at the centre of the housing crisis.

In a new report titled ‘Design for Life: The smart regeneration journey to 2030”, Localis addresses the most pressing strategic and operational concerns for local regeneration policy, landing upon a suite of recommendations that can guide policymakers towards a more resilient planning system prepared to unlock housebuilding and urban development from a perspective that values the local as a vehicle for transformation.

As Rayner noted, partnership working – with local authorities, with developers, with communities – is key to attracting investment into communities and engendering social benefit from infrastructure and development. While local leaders, and combined authorities in particular, are positioned at the axel of place partnerships, effective place leadership is complicated in the UK by a government unwilling to cede authority to its regions.

Even the rhetoric of Levelling Up seemed to entrench Whitehall as the conductor of local outcomes, waving its baton at a suite of authorities struggling to keep up with a tempo defined by sticking-plaster solutions and hurried commercialism.

Rayner does, however, acknowledge that the solution will be in the empowerment of both regional and local leaders. Mayors, she promises, will receive the tools for local housing delivery. It appears as if devolution has staying power as a priority for whichever government comes out of this campaign cycle victorious, but there needs to be a well-thought-out route to empowering regional development that cannot purely rely on government grants, as has been the norm until now and that neither party seems particularly keen to disturb.

Single budgets for local authorities, with fewer accounting restraints – or, alternatively, regeneration accounts for councils in the vein of housing revenue accounts – may provide some of the freedom that place leaders require to mould housing supply to the demands of place.

A return to strategic regional planning in a new political cycle, with Regional Planning Offices to pool talent and resources between place authorities, and funding for regeneration projects that is tied to the setting and realisation of long-term targets by local authorities would build supports onto an existing architecture of governance and engender a shift of power away from central government and into place.

And as Rayner acknowledges soundly, the next Parliament must be one that takes on long-term investment into regeneration. A long-term settlement for local government and, further, investment into the capacity of community housing initiatives would be welcome considerations.

Labour’s position on housing targets is, however, perhaps lacking. While ensuring that the public sector returns to an historic outturn of housing is, frankly, necessary in the face of the country’s needs, it remains that when local housing targets are set by a central body they simply do not respond adequately to the needs of place. The empowerment of local leaders could feasibly extend to being able to set their own housing targets based on strategic regional strategies, with the potential for Nimbyism countered by funding being conditional on long-term housing delivery goals, as stated above.

The crux of Rayner’s speech is the promise that under a new Labour government, the country will be immediately met by a flurry of activity and a next generation of ‘New Towns’, standing on the shoulders of the Attlee legacy, while local spaces will see the introduction of Labour’s “3 Gs” of housebuilding: the golden rules for green space delivery on grey belt land. A real menagerie of energetic initiatives, it remains to be seen whether Labour’s manifesto and, if Kier Starmer does clinch the vote, a new Labour government will match their current targets.

‘Design for Life’ recognises that no regeneration policy, no matter how many millions of houses are promised, is complete without a holistic approach to the challenges of place development, including net zero and climate change, which Labour seem to have taken into stride with their criteria for green spaces, habitat restoration, and cross-departmental work to ensure the UK’s environment flourishes despite a push for urban space expansion.

There is more to do to support an urban infrastructure that mitigates and is resilient to climate change – mandatory whole-life carbon assessments, for instance, and better instruments to invest in energy efficient local housing stock.

Likewise, the recognition that homes are quintessential to a “good life” and communities, while nice, must be met by a strategy that holds the health and wellbeing of residents in a place of paramount importance. A mandate for the impact of development on health in vulnerable communities in local and subregional plans, and a strategy for community-driven healthcare in urban centres, would both do just that, provided adequate collaboration between the government, the NHS, and local leadership.

To return to Rayner’s speech – for an incoming government to actually be proactive and strategic about housebuilding, especially in a context of at-best stifled public finances, requires systemic change hinged upon a magnification of the trust between tiers of government and towards local leadership. Without this trust and without planning reform, the housing crisis will continue to spiral into catastrophic magnitude.

To read ‘Design for Life’ and explore Localis’ concerns and recommendations for place-based regeneration in more detail, please follow the link below:

Sandy Forsyth is lead researcher, Localis

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