NFB warns: “You can’t level up without proper policy”

NFB warns: “You can’t level up without proper policy”

Rico Wojtulewicz, Head of Housing and Planning Policy for the National Federation of Builders, comments on the Government’s Levelling Up agenda, focusing on the implications for SME housebuilders.

The Government has announced a £1.5billion ‘Levelling Up Home Building Fund’ to help small and medium sized housebuilders (SMEs) build 42,000 homes and it will form part of their ‘Levelling Up’ white paper. The details of the strategy are expected to be released during the week beginning 7 February 2022, but many will ask if it’s old money, old strategy; or, as required, a sign that the Government finally understand levelling up needs policy enablement to best use funding promise?

To contextualise all this, it is worth exploring a previous failure and comparing that to what a coherent approach might be…

Funding permissions, not housebuilders

Much like demand led and supply devoid ‘Help to Buy’, previous iterations of the Homes Building Fund (HBF) suffered from misunderstanding the planning process and how to support SMEs.

The glaring issue with previous HBF approaches was that in order to draw down any money, planning needed to be in place. This cut out most SMEs as, for the last decade, planning has been the greatest barrier to house building. After a spluttering start, the Government changed the approach, so that to access lending, you needed to ‘already purchase a site in England that you have majority control of’ and have ‘a clear route to getting planning consent when the loan offer was made’.

This improvement still led to a conundrum: some SMEs may own a site, or have an option on it but most will not because the land market is constrained by a council’s allocation process, which identifies and allocates sites to meet local housing demand. This allocation process pushes land prices up because if a landowner knows their site is allocated, even if it doesn’t have permission of any kind, the price skyrockets to levels only investors and big builders can afford.

Some SMEs will have smaller sites allocated but if a council’s housing demand is to deliver 2,000 homes over five years, the desire to more quickly give permission to a site of thirty-five isn’t all that great and therefore unlikely to be at the top of the ‘to do’ list. Evidence suggests this to be correct, with smaller sites taking on average 18 months to get permission.

What is most likely, is that SMEs don’t have control of sites, don’t own sites but are working with landowners on getting planning, or waiting for landowners to get planning themselves outside the allocation process. These sites fall into a category called ‘windfall.’

We don’t fund controversy, or SMEs

Windfall sites with planning are incredibly expensive, even compared to allocated ones and due to competition for them, they don’t get much cheaper if they only have ‘outline’ planning, which is halfway to a permission, as lots more needs to be agreed to achieve a full permission.

Therefore, if you have an allocated or full permission windfall site, you have a ‘clear route to getting planning consent’ but if you don’t – which is the case of most SMEs – another HBF eligibility barrier exists; the funding priority of ‘clear local support’.

Windfall is deemed ‘speculative’ and local people oppose speculative development, so even if you somehow convince Homes England that you have a clear route to permission and have control of the site, a campaign against you can end your lending request, or at the very least stifle it.

While an SME navigates all the above processes, they are still paying staff, vehicles, office costs etc and even new entrants who may have lower general overheads are restricted by the five home minimum and previous experience criteria.

It will surprise few that HBF isn’t all that popular with SMEs.

The solution

So, what is the solution? It’s quite simple. The Government delivers its planning reform proposals, which, ensured planning certainty – using a local design code that when met achieves a full permission – created a competitive land market – through area, not site-based allocations – and gave local authorities more borrowing power for infrastructure works, such like roads, schools, commercial and transport.

It also needs to give Homes England planning powers in areas where councils don’t have a local plan or aren’t meeting their minimum housing targets. This would allow SMEs to partner with Homes England and deliver on both their ambitions, as well as enable placemaking through strategic regional and national levelling up.

With a 75 seat majority, the Government has an opportunity to really make a difference and set a strategic vision that delivers in the South – where housing costs and undersupply are forcing out young people and sustaining poverty – as well as reform the North forever, where homes are affordable and already being built in high numbers but growth sustaining infrastructure and employment is lacking.

Cameron botched the ‘Big Society’, May mishandled the ‘just about managing’, so will ‘Levelling Up’ be lousy, or is Boris finally delivering where so many other grandstanding slogans could not?

Rico Wojtulewicz is Head of Housing and Planning Policy for the National Federation of Builders.


Following the actual release of the Levelling Up whitepaper, the NFB says planning reform has been left in limbo.

The Government has released its ‘Levelling up white paper’, which is an extensive document aiming to tackle the regional inequalities that exist across the United Kingdom. Richard Beresford, Chief Executive of the National Federation of Builders (NFB), said: “The Levelling Up whitepaper is still to be fully digested, however, at first look, we see some encouragement, for example on spatial planning, SME finance and compulsory purchase, however, it appears a document full of already announced schemes, funding and strategies.”

The white paper is split into three parts; the full document, a metric and a regional ‘what we have already done’ release.

In terms of housing, there is a commitment to a National Landlord Register, ending ‘no fault evictions’, a Social Housing Regulation Bill, a repeat of the retrofit strategies already announced in the Heat and Buildings strategy and the announcement of a task force to improve housing choices for older people.

For planning, the Government appears to be further rolling back from its ambitious, opportunity enabling ‘Planning for the Future’ proposals and instead, has focused on digitisation of planning, tools for engagement and making places and homes ‘beautiful and useful’.

However, the NFB says it was positive to see the Government echo its recommendations to explore compulsory purchase and great powers for Homes England.

Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning policy for the House Builders Association (HBA), said, “Planning policy is the opportunity enabler and therefore without a commitment to planning reform, levelling up will be business as usual. The broken, party-political planning process hinders the building of new schools and hospitals, makes transport projects delayed and more expensive, stops new employers taking on skilled workers because they cannot find commercial space, and is the reason we have a housing crisis.

“The Government thinks brownfield in Bradford will help get homes built in brownfield-less Barnstaple. That developers should placemake; despite councils deciding where homes are permitted to be built. And that it will oversee homes built in the North to support new jobs, even though many councils are already building more than 200% of the minimum housing targets. This doesn’t feel like a revolution for Britain but rather an evolution of how to sell a slogan.”

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