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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Black

Reviewing Barker

Last week came news that the economist Dame Kate Barker will lead a new inquiry into England’s housing supply 20 years on from her original review in March 2004.


For some reading this blog post they would not have started their careers yet by then, for others like me, I cant quite believe 20 years has passed. As a young 23 year old, I had just joined CALA Homes in their then small Southern office in Staines. I was only a few years into my career and was dating a certain Catherine Shelton who would become Catherine Black a little over a year later! The market was strong back then, build costs were low, we still had a strong regional planning system, PPG3 was still a thing, affordable housing thresholds still high and there were very good grants available if it was required. The credit crunch was still a good few years away, Brexit a glint in the eye of some of the opposition back benchers, and they were very much the Halcyon Days for the industry.

 

I also have fond memories of that other Barker classic of Question of Sport back in the early 2000s, long before the BBC ruined it, and when the captains were Ally McCoist and John Parrot (I think?..... Pottsy is quite the pedant on such things and will correct me if I am wrong?).



 

But being at the front line of housing supply the industry was not without its issues, particularly around supply, and therefore Kate Barker was asked to undertake a report into housing supply. With that report now 20 years old and now being reviewed, I thought I would look back on it and think about what a new report might say.

 

The review was set up in April 2003 by the then Chancellor (a certain Gordon Brown) and Deputy Prime Minister (John Prescott). It was a far reaching and deep thinking report. A look at the Consultation Process in the back pages shows extensive engagement throughout the country and the lists of contributors reads like a who’s who of the industry and still does. This wasn’t just another report by another think tank funded by people with a prejudicial interest in the outcomes. Barker took time to engage with everyone involved in the process, listened to their responses and identified the things which would truly make a difference. If only our present government would do the same.

 

When the report was published, just under a year after the review was established, there were no less than 36 separate recommendations.

 

Barker was straight in at the introduction to the report to remind them that housing is a basic human need, which is fundamental to our economic and social well-being. Spot on and therefore even more of an absolute travesty that 20 years on from this, it basic housing remains out of reach for far too many in our country. Not just home ownership but the simple prospect of secure and stable basic accommodation.


Barker identified that affordability in the housing market was causing issues in the market with the average house price approaching 4 times the average income. The average in England is now 8 times income and in hotspots often double or even three times that.


One recommendation from the report was that regions should establish market affordability targets and in order to do so a Regional Planning Executive would be established with responsibility of developing an independent evidence base, and for advising on the scale and distribution of housing required to meet the region’s market affordability target.


Many of the recommendations centred around Regional Planning continuing and further evolving alongside English Partnerships and we now know that it would be less than 6 years before it would be disbanded in the bonfire of the quangos in the early days of the coalition government. It was clear to Barker, and most of the others she spoke to, that a regional approach was required to address some of the failures in the housing market and this was something very difficult to do at town hall level. Just 6 years later the government embarked on its localism agenda. I said at the time that there was no going back from this. ‘Localism’ was always going to be a winner on the campaign trail. It sounds good doesn’t it and the Tories were very much playing to the gallery with it.

 

I’ve heard it said from Cationa Riddell that ‘localism overpromised and underdelivered’ and that completely rings true. And where do you go from here. A local or national campaign fought on ‘regionalism’ is just not going to work for most voters.

 

Moving on. Delivery of housing and social housing was a particular focus of the report. Back then, the number of social homes built in the UK had fallen from around 42,700 per year in 1994-95 to around 21,000 in 2002-03. As I have previously reported, recent government figures continue to reveal a picture of reducing social housing. Shelter reported in January that 7,500 new social homes were built in 2021 but this was against a backdrop of 21,600 social homes being sold or demolished with the result being a net loss of 14,100 homes.


But Barker didn’t limit her recommendations to regional policy and also recognised the importance of a plan led system. The government say they still do, but we all know from recent events that the changes to the NPPF have led some local authorities to make some very shonky (technical planning term) decisions on the direction of local plans. Barker suggested that Local plans should be more realistic in their initial allocation of land, and more flexible at bringing forward additional land for development.


She went onto say that authorities should allow for the proportion of sites that prove undevelopable, often as a result of site-specific problems. In drawing up their plans, local authorities should identify their own historic shortfall and allocate an equivalent amount of land to fill this implementation gap.


Now it could be said that this is exactly what the NPPF does actually say that LPAs should do. But for many, housing targets are an absolute maximum and the government has made it clear that in green belt constrained authorities then such targets are for the birds and that has come through in the plans now being created. Whilst plan making has got itself out of the doldrums caused by Gove’s procrastination over the course of 2023, it now seems we have a race for the bottom when it comes to housing numbers in emerging plans. Not good for what Barker was trying to achieve and the legacy we now inherit.


Further recommendations called for reform of section 106 and infrastructure funding. Again, 20 years on we know that the system of planning obligations and CIL still needs much thought. As many who have been involved in community consultations on big developments will have heard time and again, one of the biggest issues for local residents is access to services in a local area and the fears that further large scale development will simply just make matters significantly worse for them. That is a failing of the government to make the link between delivery of development and delivery of infrastructure a straight read across for the stakeholders in the development process.


A focus on design and best practice was a further string running through the review. Back then her recommendation was that the industry should work with CABE. Again, we know that the writing was very quickly on the wall for them not long after the report was published. Design, and more specifically Beauty, are again central within our national planning policy but the interpretation of this by decision makers is massively inconsistent as we continue to grapple with what things like ‘Beauty’ actually mean.


The finger prints of Barker are there in the NPPF and planning system we have subsequently inherited but they are faint and certainly far removed from what she had in mind. Barker warned us that a weak supply of housing will contribute to macroeconomic instability, would hinder labour market flexibility and constrain economic growth. She even said that risks to stability would increase if the UK decided to join the Economic and Monetary Union.  Whilst that never happened, what Barker didn’t know was that in a little over 12 years from the date of her report, the UK would vote to leave the EU altogether. The government has consistently pointed towards the impact of inflation and outside factors such as the war on the Ukraine and the global pandemic has had on UKPLC, but at the same time has consistently failed to front up to the massive impact that Brexit had, and is still continuing to have on our markets, not least the housing market.   


I really hope that the new Barker Review doesn’t hold back. Just like the Question of Sport, an Observation Round of the housing market would reveal that our system is really not in great shape. Many of the issues Barker identified are still there and in many ways the passing of 20 years has only served to exacerbate those issues. Her report will be delivered to our next Chancellor (likely Rachel Reeves) and next deputy Prime Minister (likely Angela Rayner) as they inherit what will be one hell of a hospital pass in the form of a crippled planning system from the conservatives.


I, like many, are holding on to optimism in what a labour government might mean for planning and the delivery of housing. But don’t forget that when the conservatives came into power then the new chief secretary to the treasury, Philip Hammond, found a note from his Labour predecessor, Liam Byrne, saying ‘I’m afraid there is no money left’. Lets hope the Tories haven’t been waiting 15 years to get their own back for that.

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