Ed Miliband’s proposals for housing at the Labour Party’s 2013 annual conference provided a topical backdrop for the third Annual Strategic Land Debate hosted by Hogan Lovells last week in association with IBP (International Building Press).  The subject of the debate “Is British house building striking the right balance?” was resoundingly answered in the negative by the panel.  However, what this balance is and how it can be struck resulted in lively discussion.

The influence of political elections on long-term, strategic planning was a key theme throughout the debate, highlighted by both David Orr (Chief Executive, National Housing Federation) and Julia Thrift (Senior Project Manager, Town and Country Planning Association).  They felt that councillors can find themselves in conflicted positions when making planning decisions; even refusing development applications which would benefit the community in the long-term when re-election is approaching as they are conscious of the fact that small numbers of voters can be decisive in local elections.  David’s proposal was to enhance the role of councillors so that they were engaged in strategic planning decisions and remove them from the day-to-day task of considering individual planning applications.  He argued that this would encourage rational planning decisions rather than short-term thinking based on electoral cycles.

Mr Miliband’s statement that land is being “land banked” by developers waiting for prices to go up was disputed by Mark Clare (Group Chief Executive, Barratt Developments PLC).  He asserted that Barratt was not and has never done this. One solution he believed would improve the housing shortage was for there to be more consented land available (i.e. land with the benefit of planning permission).  Pete Redman (Director, Centre for London) disagreed with such a solution on the basis that the majority of land that is not consented is categorised as such because it is not suitable for residential use.

A final theme in the debate was the need for more social housing, with Julia stating that currently 1.7 million households required such subsidised accommodation.  For David the reduction in social housing can be attributed to few politicians having the appetite to champion this cause as their constituents do not want new social housing in their neighbourhood.  However, Julia advocated that this would not necessarily be the case if social housing was well-designed and properly planned housing in areas where people wanted to live which would not only be attractive to occupants but would also be popular with locals in that area.