We need housing targets that focus on needs, not numbers

By Matt Burn

My Local Planning Authority (LPA) is one of the worst performing in London. Enfield has repeatedly failed the Government’s Housing Delivery Test for new housing, and social rent homes are being demolished faster than they’re being built.

Housing policies designed to ensure that the homes built are the type which local communities need have been routinely sidelined for years.

An analysis of the type of homes being built in Enfield, showed that high numbers of small flats had been built – far more than is needed – and nowhere near enough family homes.

The shortage of family sized homes (by which I mean homes with three or more bedrooms) is having serious consequences.

Enfield has one of the highest rates of homelessness in England and there are now around 5,000 children living in temporary accommodation.  The temporary accommodation is often cramped and unhealthy, and the lack of family sized homes means that these children and their families are stuck in this accommodation for years on end.

The shortage of family sized homes affects households across a range of incomes, but it is most keenly felt by those on the lowest incomes and those in need of social rent housing. 

Households in Enfield, especially key worker families, cannot afford to rent a home big enough for their needs. As a result, thousands of working families are living in housing that is overcrowded and unsafe, or unaffordable. Eviction rates in Enfield are amongst the highest in London.

Many families are leaving Enfield in search of more suitable housing. This often means moving further away from work and schools and leaving behind family and community support networks.

The LPA in Enfield is well aware of the borough’s acute shortage of family homes, but despite this, it continues to support and encourage housing schemes that will deliver large numbers of small flats, and not the family homes the local community needs most. These small flats are often targeted at the most profitable demographic typologies such as ‘Young Professionals’ and ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’.   

In short, the LPA is focussing on achieving housing numbers, and not the needs of residents. This ‘numbers, not needs’ approach to new housing has been driven and enabled by, amongst other things, Government and regional housing targets and polices.  

An LPA is judged by the number of homes it builds and whether that number meets the target set by the Government. This target only measures the overall number of additional homes built in an area, not whether the type of homes being built reflects what the local community actually needs.

Therefore, the easiest way for an LPA to meet its housing target, especially in areas where housing sites are in short supply, is to encourage the building of large numbers of small flats. This is the approach the LPA in Enfield has taken and includes encouraging offices to be converted into tiny flats, and small flats built on publicly owned land and on sites previously used for social housing.  

Local housing policies should, in principle, provide balance and help prevent LPAs from acting this way. However, the LPA in Enfield refer to a new London Plan policy which requires urban sites to “optimise housing potential” and has interpreted this as the need to maximise the number of small flats. In other words, ‘optimise’ has become an easy way for the LPA to justify its focus on numbers, not needs.

The good news is that in January, a Planning Inspector challenged the one-dimensional view of site optimisation and concluded that “optimise has a more nuanced meaning than maximise” and that “if the dwellings are not the size or tenure that is most needed then that would not represent the optimal use of the site.”  In other words, ‘optimise’ is about needs, not numbers. Hopefully, LPAs such as Enfield will not ignore this ruling.

The Government’s housing targets would also benefit from a more nuanced approach. An overall target is fine, as long as there are checks in place that encourage LPAs to deliver the range of housing needed, not just to meet an overall number. In other words, we need housing targets that focus on needs, not numbers.

A needs, not numbers’ approach to housing targets would require the LPA to report the overall number of additional homes built in an area, as well as the tenure  – for example, social rent or market housing – and size of the homes (the number of bedrooms). Targets for tenure and size would be set according to either the LPA’s Local Plan, or their latest housing assessment and would assess the LPA on their performance across a range of metrics.   

The data needed to do this is already recorded by LPAs, so it would not be such a huge step to build in the additional targets needed.  A relatively small change to housing targets could make an enormous difference to the type of housing that actually gets built.  

Matt Burn is an activist with Better Homes Enfield

Image: Enfield. Source: Greater London UK district map (blank).svg. Author: Greater London UK district map (blank).svgNilfanion, created using Ordnance Survey data derivative work: Renly (talk), licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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