The Housing Targets Debate: The enduring importance of communication

There is always a risk with any political debate that the matter at hand is overly simplified and reduced to the endless exchange of soundbites. And so it has been with the ongoing debate over the role of national house building targets in the planning system where “builders versus blockers” or “unleashing urban sprawl on the Green Belt” get bandied about regularly as part of the political “argy bargy”.

At the time of the 2019 General Election, all major political parties expressed their dedication to boosting the housing supply in England. The Conservative manifesto outlined their commitment to building a million new homes by the end of this Parliament and the ongoing progress towards a target of constructing 300,000 homes annually by the mid-2020s. Since then there have been a number of false starts on planning reform and then came the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, and its proposals to soften centrally-mandated housing targets, sparking the current debate. And last month we had Michael Gove present the Government’s Long-Term Plan for Housing.

Labour has also been setting out their stall on housing since their General Election loss. They began by labelling the government’s planning reforms in 2021 as a “developers charter”, but have now shifted to calling for a reinstatement of hard housing targets alongside a more proactive review of the Green Belt. Only time will tell if this current position makes it into the next Labour manifesto, let alone a potential move into government next year.

Whilst policies and political positions will change, a constant will always be our existing communities that would gain from well-designed, climate-friendly new homes and supporting infrastructure – and the need to proactively and meaningfully engage with them upfront on how best to deliver the growth to secure a prosperous future.

And there is plenty to engage people on. A YouGov tracker poll over recent years, for example, has shown little movement in the public’s views on the question of “is there enough brownfield land available in the right places to meet the country’s housing needs?” – with 58 per cent agreeing with this and only 13 per cent disagreeing when the question was last asked in July.

The development industry shouldn’t hold out for the big government stick to come back out to impose housing onto hesitant and potentially resistant communities. They should instead get onto the front foot and out and about in communities to engage with residents and stakeholders directly on the benefits that growth can bring. Indeed, there are many developers and housebuilders who see communication as an investment in both relationships and ultimately their brand – and not a cost to be minimised.

However, there is a clear need to raise the bar when it comes to the inclusivity and accessibility of community engagement, and the development industry must work harder to reach those groups who may not necessarily participate in more ‘traditional’ methods of consultation. Equally, being clear about what can and cannot be influenced, or the ‘fixes’ and ‘flexes’ of a proposal, through constructive dialogue is vitally important in ensuring that trust is built and maintained through transparency. Otherwise, projects run the risk of being accused of paying lip service to engagement, which potentially creates issues later in the process.

As a former Council Leader, I was proud to oversee record house-building in the last few years, including the delivery of much-needed affordable homes. Amongst local councils and the communities within them there is an appetite to have the conversations needed to deliver the new homes, jobs and infrastructure that can realise people’s dreams and aspirations. We should get on with it.