Homes England was originally formed as the Homes and Communities Agency in 2008. Fifteen years on, the organisation is being independently reviewed and the commission will report back to the Cabinet Office by the end of the year.
Here, Tim Foreman, Managing Director of Land and New Homes at LRG and Adrian Plant, Director of Shared Ownership, discuss purpose and issues surrounding the review.
In what ways has Homes England delivered in terms of say, facilitating housing, new developments, etc?
Tim Foreman: Homes England exists to help facilitate some larger scale development opportunities; particularly those that the market cannot deliver without Government intervention. It is necessary to have a body such as Homes England to push major regeneration schemes through the planning system because the infrastructure costs (which are often required up front) related to communities of this size – i.e. transport, utilities, education, healthcare, community infrastructure and much more – cannot be realistically provided by a single developer. Homes England has the unique ability to make this happen due to their ability to front-load investment in essential infrastructure.
Adrian Plant: Homes England has done well in supporting housing providers on their regeneration journey, delivering some transformed communities.
Are there ways in which Homes England is not living up to expectations?
Adrian Plant: I believe it fell short of its 2022 target for the delivery of new homes by 22% and failed to meet its unlocked housing capacity target by 38%. Homes England needs to be aware of supply issues sooner and where possible take steps to mitigate them. It needs to work with housebuilders areas to improve rundown area, increase housing supply and reimagine high street spaces where stores are closing due to large retail parks and home delivery services. You only have to look up in any high street and see the amount of unused space above shops that could be repurposed.
What would you hope is looked at / revisited?
Tim Foreman: The responsibility and budget that has been given to Homes England is not a silver bullet. Homes England does not benefit from preferential planning powers as it still has to submit a planning application like anyone else and as we know, securing planning permission is complex and time consuming, particularly for major regeneration schemes or large urban extensions or new settlements which Homes England are most likely to be promoting for development.
So despite its budget, Homes England doesn’t have the much needed power to speed up development. Infuriatingly for those at Homes England and for all of us, they have their hands tied behind their backs.
The review needs to be procedural: it needs to take into account these limitations and mitigate them. One option could be for Homes England to be given expedited planning powers, as the development corporations of the 1980s and 90s had. This would enable them to bring forward vast underused industrial parks and other brownfield sites which have the potential to deliver housing in the numbers that we so desperately need. In doing so, they could genuinely benefit levelling up in a way that no other organisation can.
The original remit of Homes England was to improve the quality and supply of homes in England. That is an even bigger job than it may sound due to be logjams in the planning system.
The Levelling Up White Paper intended to broaden the remit of Homes England in all areas except London, which presumably is excluded because the Mayor has this responsibility.
Help to Buy, which was rolled out but not initiated by Homes England, was brilliant for both first time buyers and housebuilders. Its cessation earlier this year has contributed to the housing crisis. To revive Help to Buy or find a suitable alternative is much needed, but this is also beyond the remit of Homes England.
Homes England needs the powers to take on large scale infrastructure projects and see them through to completion, which can take decades.
Adrian Plant: The ability to unlock land and promote more development to assist in delivering the number of homes we should be building annually, including brownfield sites. The income caps need to be reviewed as the cost of home ownership has risen significantly in recent times. I would hope they would do away with any onerous Section 106 clauses that can act as barriers to sales, such as local income caps imposed by local authorities.
We need a stand alone brand for shared ownership that is supported in the same way that Help to Buy was a stand alone brand. Homes England should have more of a voice in reviewing and reshaping planning regulations to make the delivery of affordable homes easier. It should also review service charges on affordable homes at the outset to ensure they are reasonable and sustainable. I would like to see Homes England work more closely with housing providers to regenerate existing estates, to share their knowledge and expertise in this area give registered providers the confidence to regenerate on a larger scale.
What could any “full scale” review mean?
Adrian Plant: Grass roots up, look at what they set out to do originally and how they have done against those goals; then look at what we need them to be doing now and how they will facilitate this, with measurable targets in place for the delivery of new homes – we cannot escape the fact that we are not building enough homes to meet demand. There needs to be an instantly recognisable brand created for shared ownership in much the same way as there was for Help to Buy with fully supported media campaign.
It’s been six years since Homes England was reviewed and the development industry has changed considerably in that time. Has Homes England kept pace?
Adrian Plant: The sector has changed and evolved somewhat and there are new challenges around labour and material supplies, and also planning system delays. I don’t believe Homes England has evolved enough to accommodate this. Its remit however has changed during this period though its targets have not been revised to reflect this.
Tim Foreman: To judge Homes England on its success to date is unfair due to the long term and complex nature of its role and the very many obstacles that lie in its way.
Does Homes England receive enough funding to make a difference?
Tim Foreman: £16bn is a huge amount money, but Homes England faces a huge task – both in terms of size and complexity. The funding should not be reduced, but the procedural side – freeing Homes England’s work from the vagaries of the planning system is just as important.
Adrian Plant: Yes, if they can create joint venture opportunities with large housebuilders and engage with the sector to establish creative ways in which the money can be made to go further – for example to unlock some of the massive amounts of land in public sector ownership.
Conversely it is one of the biggest budgets given to any arms length body by the government, could the money be spent better?
Adrian Plant: I think Homes England does a good job of administering its budgets but it do need to ensure that its strategic partners are meeting their targets within the agreed timescales. If shared ownership is ever to be truly recognised as the fourth mainstream tenure, it needs to be more widely supported in the same way as Help to Buy was.