Cambridge is a high-growth city. Home to the eponymous university, a burgeoning tech sector and rapidly increasing house prices. In the Autumn Statement the Chancellor announced that funds will be made available to revive the city’s ‘Varsity’ train line to Oxford and that there would be additional funding for housebuilding across the UK, which Cambridge Council is eyeing up.
Savills Cambridge offices were therefore the perfect location for our inaugural breakfast seminar. The event bought together a range of excellent speakers to discuss the barriers to and opportunities for accelerating the delivery of housing, not just in Cambridge, but across the UK. The speakers were drawn from across local government and the housing industry, including Cecilia Tredget, Managing Director, East of England Local Government Association (LGA); Stephen Hills, Director of Housing, South Cambridgeshire District Council; Suzanne McBride, Strategic Director, Cambridge City Council; and Bryn Maidman, Divisional Managing Director, Eastern and Central Regions, Taylor Wimpey.
Each of the speakers offered insight into their specific local issues and the broader priorities of their sector. For the LGA the most pressing concerns of their members included the uncertainty created by Brexit, ensuring they are able to deliver affordable housing, and the skills gap and lack of construction materials to actually build homes. As a result, there is a greater focus on collaboration between LAs to address these issues, using their powers to bring sites forward and promote new methods of construction to speed up the delivery of housing.
The speakers from Cambridgeshire’s local authorities said they were doing exactly this. They observed that the economic impact of getting the right house types and price points are critical to the future success of Cambridge and the UK. They are working together and actively considering local changes to the National Planning Policy Framework to introduce more flexibility into the housing market to build more homes and improve the transactions within it. Now the Government have agreed a devolution deal it is likely there will be more of this to come from them; exciting times!
From the developers’ perspective the biggest issue which gets in the way of building homes for big and small developers is the complexity of the planning system. It simply takes too long to get schemes through. This ties up cash, creates uncertainty, impacts the supply chain and takes too long to get a return on their investment. The unintended consequence of this is that it prohibits small and medium builders (SMEs) delivering as they don’t have the same financial strength of a larger developer. The main “ask” is that it needs to be easier to get planning approvals for which changes in policy are required, and to provide more continuity and certainty for SME builders.
I was also speaking on the day and explained that delivering more affordable housing through s106 agreements will only be achieved at the scale and pace of the open market, and that we need to break down the constructs of housing “labels”.
For me the biggest takeaway was the consensus on the obstacles and solutions to delivering more housing between the local authority and industry speakers. We all agreed that our respective sectors needed to dispense with any mutual mistrust and to work in partnership with one another, rather than in competition, if we’re going to build homes at the rate we need to. Encouragingly, the Autumn Statement seems to indicate that Government thinking is similar. There is clear agreement that we need a strategic plan for housing, we need more flexibility around tenure types, we need better infrastructure to support developments and we need to ensure we have sufficient numbers of people with the right types of skills to deliver it all.
At Rentplus we are hoping that January’s Housing White Paper will translate this consensus into action and break down the barriers which are frustrating the building of new homes on the ground, underpinned by the new funding initiatives announced in the Autumn Statement to support housing growth over the next five years. The event taught us that there is a consensus on the range of options to solve the housing crisis, but we will not reach this goal unless we come together and get Britain building again as we did successfully in the two post-war eras.
Richard Connolly, CEO of Rentplus