Housing: Time for radical solutions

Only a holistic approach which mixes meaningful engagement via placemaking principles with infrastructure investment will solve the housing crisis, argues Tom Smith of WSP.

For too long policymakers have grappled with the housing crisis to little avail. Politicians of all hues make striking promises in election campaigns but inevitably fail to deliver. All the while the problem becomes more acute. Latest figures suggest the country needs at least 300,000 homes a year for the foreseeable future, more than the city of Nottingham. 

It’s from this starting point that ACE’s new report, Unlocking Housing: Invigorating local communities through placemaking, aims to reimagine housebuilding and planning in this country. The report argues that a radical change in approach will deliver the community buy-in necessary to welcome the hundreds of thousands of new homes needed.

It starts with embedding placemaking principles within our planning system. Placemaking is a people-centred approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces which champions meaningful engagement with local communities and the development of local plans which are welcomed by existing residents. Added to this mix comes additional spending on supporting social and economic infrastructure.

The end-result is a planning system which better understands the needs and desires of the local community from the outset, where homes are sympathetically added to the existing diverse housing mix and where larger developments are accompanied by new transport links, GP surgeries, schools, sports facilities, public parks and libraries. 

Our view is that in return public support will be much stronger for new homes, reducing planning delays and ultimately costs for developers and councils alike. This is backed up by research quoted in the report which shows this very fact – there is stronger local support for new homes if supported with infrastructure spending.

So where is the money coming from for all of this? ACE has proposed a new property sales levy, based on an existing levy in New York, which will charge 1% to 1.5% on the sale of property. Based on existing sales data, this would raise £2.16bn to councils, equivalent to around £62 billion in long-term bonds – double the current budget of Crossrail, Crossrail 2 and HS2. This will leave more than enough for councils to invest in the planners required to bring a true national placemaking vision to life.

To take the next step in bringing our proposals to fruition, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Building Communities was formed on 18 June in the Houses of Parliament. ACE will manage the secretariat for the group whose remit is to discuss these issues at the heart of parliament and I look forward to ACE’s property group, which I currently chair, engaging with the Lords and MPs on all of these issues.

The housing crisis is a complex and far-reaching issue without a quick fix. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that it is the biggest issue facing our society. For too long we have skirted around the issues to be met with inevitable failure. Now is the time to radically change approach. It’s time for joined up planning which meaningfully engages communities on what their needs are. It’s time to spend on infrastructure which enhances the lives of all residents, existing and new. It’s time to bring local communities into the debate as to how we can collectively solve the housing crisis. 

Tom Smith is chair of ACE’s property group and global director of property and buildings at WSP.