The government is exploring emergency measures to kick-start house-building, amid an expected decrease in new build this year, BBC Newsnight has learned.
In leaked documents, officials warn the last set of figures before the 2015 general election will reveal house building to have decreased by 4%.
House building is likely to loom quite large as an election issue.
The government said pressure would be brought to bear on “slow-coach councils” to deliver on new build.
The decrease is worrying the government after it expended quite considerable political capital on planning reform and other measures to boost house building.
The official assessment passed to Newsnight suggests that the number of houses started in the UK will go down this year.
That figure will be released in February 2015, three months ahead of the general election.
Labour leader Ed Miliband attacked the prime minister in January of this year, saying that house completions were at their lowest level since 1924.
David Cameron responded at the time: “Housing starts in the last quarter were at the highest level for five years … and there has been a 16% increase in housing starts over the past 12 months compared with the year before.”
Now, in a document produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and marked “sensitive”, officials project housing starts will go down.
It reads: “DCLG expect a decrease in the number of houses started this year: down from 133,650 in 2013/2014 to c.128,000 in 2014/15 (-4%).”
It goes on: “The last data on house building for this parliament is due in Feb 2015 for period to Dec 2014.”
The internal projections show house building will then pick up in the year 2015/2016.
But there is such concern within government about this unflattering eve-of-election snapshot that politicians have been scouring their policy cupboard for ways to increase house building.
On another page of the document passed to Newsnight, the DCLG says: “9,000 sites for 350,000 homes with full planning permission haven’t started building.”
It suggests that the DCLG “could accelerate starts on sites with permission in current programmes”.
One area policy programme highlighted is the “right to buy 1-1 replacement”.
Councils are now meant to build a replacement home when they sell one off under the right-to-buy programme – the scheme that was introduced by Margaret Thatcher.
The DCLG document reveals that some are not doing this.
Instead, the document says, under the right to buy 1-1 replacement, “20 councils each retained £5m+ in receipts but started fewer than 30 replacement homes. £50m of receipts held by these councils for over 12 months. No incentive to start early”.
Housing minister Kris Hopkins said: “We’ve delivered 445,000 new homes over the past four years and housing starts are now at their highest since 2007 but we’re going further, building on the success of schemes like Help to Buy to get Britain building and investing billions of pounds in new affordable homes.
“For years the right to buy was allowed to wither on the vine, but our reinvigorated scheme has changed all that, with nearly 3,000 homes started thanks to the receipts from sales.
“I’ll be bringing pressure to bear on the small number of slow-coach councils that need to raise their game to meet what they have signed up to do and deliver the new homes their communities rightly expect.”
Hilary Benn MP, Labour’s shadow communities and local government secretary, said: “This leaked document lays bare the stark truth of this Tory-led government’s failure on housing.
“Despite endless ministerial announcements and claims, officials are advising them in private that housing starts are astonishingly set to fall.”
The RIBA has said more homes should be built on the greenbelt in a ‘controversial’ action plan drawn up for whoever wins the 2015 general election
The claims are made in a new document, Building a Better Britain: A vision for the next government, which sets out the institute’s main demands in an attempt to shape future policy.
The RIBA said the nation’s housing crisis could only be solved by rethinking the greenbelt and allowing homes to be built on sites where the greenbelt ‘no longer serves its purpose’, and where development has jumped the divide between urban and rural.
The report adds: ‘With the right approach, developing areas of low-value greenbelt could be a mechanism to unlock brownfield sites if local authorities retain the uplift in land value generated by granting planning permission, and use this income to remediate brownfield sites to increase density close to urban centres.’
RIBA council candidate Ben Derbyshire of HTA Design said the recommendations were ‘going to be controversial’, and that many members would not agree.
He said: ‘It is another example of the RIBA seeking profile through controversy and this can be counter-productive, even alienating to member interests.
‘A better approach would be a joint initiative with planning institutes to show how urban extensions can be delivered in a local consensus through the existing planning system.’
Paul Miner, senior planning officer at Campaign to Protect Rural England, also criticised the RIBA’s recommendations.
He said: ‘Greenbelt land should only be lost as a last resort. However, there are good points in the report such as welcoming the ideas about bringing brownfield back into use.’
The report also slams the government’s current garden cities prospectus for ‘stopping short of setting out a bold vision for comprehensive masterplanning and the design standards that this scale of new development should aspire’.
In addition, the institute demands an end to Gove’s standardised school designs, criticising the current school building programme as ‘too cheap’ and producing buildings which ‘aren’t fit for purpose’. The RIBA recommends that the next government increases spending on schools by 20 per cent per square metre.
RIBA president Stephen Hodder said: ‘The next UK government should empower our cities, towns and villages to prosper and provide the homes, education, services and jobs that are vital for the nation […] It needs to look at architecture and the built environment as part of the solution.’
THE RIBA’S RECOMMENDATIONS TO GOVERNMENT
- An architecture policy setting out a long-term vision for creating great places is needed
- A long term strategic plan for the country addressing decisions around housing, infrastructure, flooding and energy is needed
- A National Spatial Strategy to act as a framework for infrastructure, economic development, and housing is required
- A cabinet minister should be appointed to deliver architecture policy and spatial strategy
- The cabinet minister should be supported by a chief design advisor from the construction sector
- City regions should outline how they will deliver great architecture
- The government should produce a more comprehensive prospectus for new towns and garden cities
- A review of the green belt should be carried out
- The government should establish Local Development Alliances
- The government should commit £3million per year form the Regional Growth Fund to finance a new Design Network
- The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) should be reviewed
- Government must ensure local authorities have adopted Local Plans
- All neighbourhood plans above a defined size should be assessed by a design review panel
- The local authority borrowing cap on Housing Revenue Account receipts should be removed
- The government should support the establishment of a Local Housing Development Fund sourced from local authority pension funds or a National Housing Investment Bank
- Local authorities should make land available for custom-build, self-build and smaller developers in the form of serviced plots
- Government should simplify the regulatory requirements for new homes into a national guide including space standards
- Government should provide greater incentives to councils to bring forward development
- Tax incentives for firms producing off-site construction components and developers utilising off-site construction techniques should be introduced
- The cost per square metre for schools built through the Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP) should be increased by 20 per cent
- The size of government-funded schools should return to the areas recommended in Building Bulletin 98 for secondary schools, Building Bulletin 99 for primary schools, and Building Bulletin 102 for special schools
- Scoring on procurement should be changed from a cheapest wins approach
- Local authorities with less than 50 per cent green space should have to produce a healthy infrastructure plan
- All health and wellbeing boards should be required to contain a local planner or design champion
- Government should commit to spending 10 per cent of transport budgets on walking and cycling
- Local authorities should have an urban ageing strategy in place addressing issues of active ageing in line with the World Health Organisation’s Age Friendly Cities principles
- A proportion of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) payments should be ring-fenced for improvements to the local high streets
- The government alongside housing associations should come up with a pilot scheme for multi-generational homes
- Any new programme for new towns or garden cities should provide innovations in new housing
- The new government should introduce legislation committing successive governments to make flooding resilience a strategic priority for the next 100 years
- Government and the Environment Agency should develop a strategic plan for flood risk management
- The government should set out a National Retrofit Strategy for all building types
- Whole life carbon assessments should be made mandatory for all retrofit projects
- With the exception of heritage buildings, external insulation should be made a permitted development
- Local planning authorities should lead retrofit as brokers of the Green Deal
- Government should develop a coordinated marketing strategy to improve Green Deal take-up
- Mandatory Display Energy Certificates (DECs) should be extended to the private sector