CAD Divider

The Challenge of Delivering Affordable Housing for Our Communities

Jan 28, 2022

By Mark Dawes, Managing Director, CAD Architects

Defining a complex issue

What the media call “the UK housing crisis” has been much in the news over recent years. But what does that term really mean and to whom does it apply? Is it the young trying to afford a home? The old trying to find suitable accommodation? The family on a budget trying to find something appropriate to their family’s needs or the mobile career minded individual trying to rent good quality accommodation? We all have different needs and all of these need to be represented in the housing supply.

By necessity, political discussion often gets reduced to sound bites and complex issues such as housing are often misrepresented because of the pressure to make simple statements. The shame is the issues then become polarised and highly political and solutions become thin on the ground. What is plain is that the current system does not work for anyone.

To try and find solutions we need to fully understand the problem and it is important to define the term ‘affordable housing’ as it means such different things to different people. Here we try to separate the different groups and types of housing needed.

Social Housing – for those in real housing need (ie needing a roof over their head) social housing should provide that safety net. The great post WWII housing boom sought to rehouse those left homeless by war damage and to provide homes for soldiers returning to civilian life and work. Social housing is state owned and rented at a rent that is affordable and less than market rent.

Affordable Housing – is housing provided by Registered Social Landlords (Housing Associations) and rents are generally at 85% of market rent. Affordable Homes for sale are either sold at a discount or as shared ownership.

Open Market Housing – is everyone else, the old, the young or the infirm.

So, when the media refer to the “Housing Crisis” to whom and what do they refer? Well, we think that the media do not sufficiently differentiate and it, quite frankly, they do not know. But if a solution is ever to be provided, we need to get back to specifics and be targeted in our discussions.

Are we delivering the social housing our communities need?

The simple answer is No. Every council in England must keep a “housing need register” and this records all of those who have registered a need for housing. Currently there are approximately 1.1 million people on these lists. So these are the people in most desperate need of housing and upon whom the state should focus efforts to provide housing. Remember this figure is not static, it changes every day and grows.

What does the state do then to address this massive need for the most basic form of housing? Well it funds Housing Associations, it makes funds available to Local Authorities at preferential rates of interest (1.5%). It requires developers through Section 106 Agreements to provide a proportion of affordable housing on all housing developments over 10 dwellings, in a mix of social housing and affordable housing.

How successful has this policy been?

  • In the 35 years after the end of the Second World War, 4.4 million social homes were built.
  • In 1980, 94,140 social homes were built.

· In 2018/19, just 6,287 new social homes were delivered.

  • In 2019/2020, Construction of social housing remained at close to its lowest level since the 1980s, with just 6,566 homes built.

The figures speak for themselves and are a damming indictment on successive governments of all political persuasions.

Why is the current system not working?

So is it a failure of the housing associations, (who have been funded to provide social housing) or is it the planning system itself, some other factor or a combination?

One source of discussion on this vital topic is the Policy Exchange report: “Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century” published in January 2020, Their report is worth reading in detail, but below I have summarised some of the deficiencies they identified in our current planning system:

  • Land use is rationed depending on what planners think is ‘needed’ and thus on aspirations rather than reality
  • Stunted, ugly and unsustainable urban growth is the result.
  • Unlike most other planning systems in the world, there are no fixed rules that determine what must be done to gain consent to build.
  • Dynamic places are constrained. Supply of housing and employment space has not been able to adjust to increased demand.
  • Excessive planning restrictions have caused a redistribution of wealth and income from renters to homeowners.
  • Excessive planning restrictions have increased the cost of commercial real estate.
  • The planning system has been captured by the ‘noisy minority’.
  • The complexity and risk of the planning system has diminished the country’s base of small and medium sized developers.
  • Planners are tasked with achieving too many policy objectives.
  • The complexity and discretionary nature of the planning system means that decisions are regularly challenged in the courts. This further increases costs, risks and delays.

In short, the costs of the planning system far outweigh its benefits.

What needs to change?

If we look beyond social and affordable housing there is everyone else, those who have a house or can afford to buy one. This is by far the largest group, yet their needs are often lost in the political noise surrounding social and affordable housing. A good supply is essential for these groups as well, why? Because over time individual housing need changes in response to work, relationships and children. To have a successful, socially mobile and happy population we need to provide the homes that serve their needs over their lifetime.

The bulk of housing in the UK is provided by the national house builders such as Taylor Wimpey or Persimmon to name but two. The rest is provided by independent small and medium enterprises. All developers rely on land supply. A ready supply of housing land with certainty over delivery of planning consent so that they can program construction and reliably keep the vast construction workforce employed in the sector working. The current planning system does not provide this.

Until a more reactive dynamic system is devised to unleash the potential of communities the issue of housing supply will continue to persist. The competing interests of the preservationists and those trying to provide for the future must be resolved in a progressive and intelligent way. This will take real political courage, something it seems that all administrations, including the current one, have lacked.

Since the Policy Exchange report was published in January 2020, the government issued a White Paper, ‘Planning for the Future’ in August 2020. Since then, there has been little concrete progress. Despite their original promises to ‘shake up’ the planning system, the ambitious rhetoric has been noticeably toned down in recent speeches. The Planning Bill originally planned for Spring 2021 has been repeatedly delayed and we are now told will be launched in early 2022. We eagerly await this and fervently hope the government will finally grasp the mettle. The future of our communities is at stake.

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