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3. Living together in a neoliberal age of inequalities and social fragmentation

Living together in the UK : when housing becomes an obstacle

David Fée
p. 173-192


This paper finds its origin in a number of discussions with officials in the UK about what I call the UK housing conundrum. By this I mean the worsening housing conditions experienced by many households, the incapacity of a growing section of the population to house themselves at a reasonable price and the seeming powerlessness of national and local authorities to match supply and demand.

This is despite the planning system having been tasked with creating socially balanced communities since its inception in 1947, a commitment upheld by most post-war governments. Although living together has long been an official objective of planning and housing policies in the UK, this objective is increasingly difficult to achieve because of recent policy choices as I shall explain.

In this paper I would first like to look briefly at the housing context of and background to recent housing policies. Second, the links between the planning system and socially balanced communities will be examined from a historical perspective. Third, I shall look at some recent changes in housing policy that make it harder for British people to live together; finally, I shall explore the recent consequences of those policy choices. The article only looks at social balance from an income perspective and not from an ethnic one for lack of space, and it focuses mostly on England.

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Introduction : the housing challenge

1Before examining the extent to which social mixing has been a key principle of the planning system since its inception, it is important to briefly review the housing situation in England. This will help readers understand the far-reaching consequences of some recent measures as well as the urgency of achieving social mixing through housing policies.

  • 1 DCLG, Fixing our Broken Housing Market, Cm 9352, London, HMSO, 2017.
  • 2 Ibid.: 9.
  • 3 Barker, 2006: 91.
  • 4 DCLG, table 213.
  • 5 DCLG, House building: permanent buildings started and completed by tenure in England, London, DCLG, (...)

2To use the title of the 2017 housing White Paper, the housing market in England (and in the UK more generally) can be described as “broken”)1. This is due first and foremost to an imbalance between supply and demand: since the 1970s, 160,000 dwellings have been built in England every year when between 225,000 and 275,000 are needed2. Within this overall figure, a percentage of sub-market housing units (called affordable homes today), those requiring some form of state aid for households unable to access market housing, is needed. In the absence of official figures (post-2010 governments have been remarkably reluctant to provide estimates of affordable housing needs, in a way reminiscent of the Thatcher years), we need to turn to pre-2010 official estimates or those of the voluntary sector: in 2006, it was calculated that between 28,000 (to meet additional households) and 67,000 units (to compensate for all Right-To-Buy (RTB) and private sector losses included) were needed3. Recent estimates (2018) by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have raised these figures to 78,000. Building statistics show that the building industry is falling short of those needs. In 2018-19, 169,000 dwellings were completed in England, including 2,540 affordable units by Local authorities (LAs) and 27,910 by Housing associations (Has)4. This is well below what was achieved by the Conservatives in 1954 (293,110 units in England alone) after they had launched the “housing crusade” they had promised in their 1951 manifesto or what Labour managed to have built in 1968 (352,540) at the height of the public housing drive5.

  • 6 Bowie, 2017: 63.
  • 7 Ibid.

3The situation in the capital is worse with an additional 62,000 homes needed each year and output varying between 15,000 and 18,000)6. The Greater London Assembly (GLA)’s own estimates put the total need at 66,000, of which 43 000 should be affordable (London Assembly, 2019: 1). However, in recent years, an average of 32,000 homes has been built in London 2018-19, and only 14,500 affordable starts were made in 2018-197.

  • 8 DCLG, 2017: 10 and 13.
  • 9 Ibid.: §3.35.
  • 10 Bowie, 2017: 88.
  • 11 Shelter, 2017: 11.
  • 12 Wilson and Barton, 2020: 7.

4As a result of these imbalances, English households (and young ones above all) have seen their housing conditions decline: since 1998, “the ratio of average house prices to average earnings has more than doubled” and by 2017 the ratio of median prices to median earnings ranged from 2.9 to over 14.3 when it is estimated that 3.5 is the right balance8. This is not just a London and a South East problem: in parts of Greater Manchester, prices are nearly 9 times the average earnings9. Another sign of housing stress is that the home ownership rate declined among 25 to 34 years-olds from 59% a decade ago to 37% today, and in the UK population from 71% to 64% between 2004 and 201610. Yet, the consequences of the lack of homes go beyond affordability issues. It also means that 121,000 children are in temporary accommodation11 and that overcrowding is on the rise again12.

5As can be seen from the above, it has become increasingly difficult for a growing number of households in England to secure good housing conditions. Access to the housing market is increasingly determined by affordability and income criteria. The evolution of the housing market over the last three decades has increasingly constrained the housing choices of households in England and has made it harder to create socially mixed communities. This would warrant state intervention in the housing market. But is it happening in England?

A long history of state intervention

  • 13 See Thornley, 1991: 26.
  • 14 See also The 1986 Nuffield Report on Town and Country Planning.

6We need to go back several decades in order to understand where we stand today and measure how things have changed. The town and country planning system that still regulates development (and so housing) in the UK (with a number of differences in the four nations after 1997 because of devolution) was created in 1947 when the Town and Country Planning Act was passed in reaction to the uncontrolled development of the countryside between the Wars. The TCP Act contained two key measures: the nationalisation of development rights in exchange for a national compensation to landowners and above all the introduction of planning permission, namely the possibility for a development project to go ahead only after the local authority had given the developer its permission on a case by case basis. The Act’s preamble read: “An Act to make fresh provision for planning the development and use of land, for the grant of permission to develop land and for other powers of control over the use of land”. The Act was written against the background of Britain’s more egalitarian culture following World War II. When introducing the bill, Lewis Silkin, the Minister for Town and Country Planning, stated the importance of securing the interest of the community. He emphasised that the objectives of planning were “to secure a proper balance between the competing demands for land, so that all the land of the country is used in the best interests for the whole people”13. Another key task set to the planning system has been to guarantee a fair degree of social mix or as A. Thornley puts it “to minimise the adverse neighbourhood effect created by a market in land and development (1991: 19)14.

7Within the post-war planning system, it fell to housing policies to deliver this egalitarian agenda as well as social cohesion. While the 1949 Housing Act was going through Parliament, Aneurin Bevan, the Health Minister in charge of the housing programme underlined the importance of housing, stating:

  • 15 Hansard, 16/03/1949, vol. 462, col. 2126-7.

We should try to introduce in our modern villages what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and farm labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life of a citizen. I believe it is a necessary biological background for modern life and I believe it leads to the enrichment of every member of the community to live in communities of that sort […] where before their eyes every day they can see the living tapestry of a mixed community”15.

8This was to be achieved in two ways: first, by removing the 1919 Housing Act’s restriction that prevented local authorities from building for non-working class tenants and second by repeating the 1919 duty of local authorities to assess their needs and meet these partly through building council houses. Council housing became a means of securing social mixing at the neighbourhood or council level and was construed within a general needs perspective by Labour at least until the 1977 Green Paper, Housing Policy: A Consultative Document. Supply-side interventions, through housing subsidies, were designed to secure a high level of public housebuilding until the 1970s.

  • 16 DOE, 1971: 42
  • 17 Claphman, Kemp, Smith, 1990: 91.

9The 1972 Housing Act signalled a shift to intervening on the demand side through assistance to consumers or as the 1971 White Paper put it “subsidising people not bricks and mortar”16. General needs subsidies (bricks and mortar) gradually came to an end and the number of new council housing units started falling away. Subsidies were replaced by several mechanisms designed to help tenants in the public and private sector pay their rents wherever they lived. In the private sector (and to a lesser extent in the council sector), this objective was to be achieved by providing rent allowances and in the public sector rent rebates17. In 1982/83 these two subsidies were combined simply into a new one, housing benefit.

10Until 2010, this system was means-tested and based on the difference between eligible rent and a number of needs allowances. If a claimant’s income was below needs allowances, housing benefit would help pay for 100% of the eligible rent. If it was above, housing benefit was reduced by 65 p for every £1. Eligible rent was equal to the average rent in the area, as determined by the rent service/officer. State aid with rents was designed to secure a degree of social mixing everywhere in the country, and to avoid the natural tendency of the housing market to sort people on the sole basis of their ability to pay.

11This post-war egalitarian agenda also explains a key post-war housing programme launched on the basis of the Reith Committee’s 1946 Report. The same year, the Labour government decided to set about building new towns to decongest Britain’s main cities and rehouse slum residents. As a result of a political consensus between Labour and the Conservatives, 32 New Towns were built between 1946 and 1970, in an attempt to provide modern facilities and a healthy environment to self-contained socially-mixed communities. Lewis Silkin, the Minister in charge of the programme in 1946, set out the ambition of the Labour government, stating: “The New Towns must be beautiful. Here is a chance for a revival or creation of new architecture and an experience of design as well as living. The monotony of the pre-war housing estate must not be repeated” (Town and Country Planning, 1968: 10). At the second Reading of the New Towns Bill in 1946, the Earl of Listowel summed up the social mission assigned to the programme in this way:

  • 18 Town and Country Planning, 1968: 12.

We want a community free from the occupational and income snobberies of town life today. There must be no West Ends or East Ends, no suburban villas for the professional and black coated workers and central tenements for the factory hands. Each of the neighbourhoods into which the New Towns will be divided must be planned as a cross-section of the occupational and income groups in the population18.

  • 19 James Gregory, 2009: 23.
  • 20 SEU, 2001: 13.
  • 21 Colenutt, 2020.

12Thus, building balanced communities was a key aim of the new planning system right from the start, although everything did not go according to plan. Both New Towns and council housing failed to live up fully to expectations. Because public housing programmes after 1956 were targeted on inner city slums residents, council housing (especially high rise housing) became stigmatised and a by-word for social need and exclusion19. Over the next decades, council estates developed into monolithic estates where poverty became fossilised. Deprivation became entrenched in a small number of wards in England (841 wards or 10% of England’s by 1998)20. Likewise, New Towns failed to develop into inclusive and balanced communities. Although they were conceived as a means of decanting inner city areas residents, too, access to housing was dependent on securing a job in a new town. As early as the 1960s, it became clear that New Towns were not providing housing for all but were primarily providing housing for skilled workers, that rents were too high for low income workers and that there was not enough private or executive housing. Because many of the nominations to New Town Corporation houses were by employers moving to the New Towns, this favoured skilled workers. New town development was driven by key employers attracted to the towns rather than by meeting wider housing needs21.

  • 22 See Fée, 2013.

13This post-war egalitarian agenda was increasingly challenged by the Conservative party after 1955 as “the housing crusade” was thought to have solved the housing shortage and the new social services were thought to be eroding individual responsibility. It came under renewed attack after the Conservatives returned to power in 1979 under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. For economic, ideological and political reasons22, housing provision was privatised: local authority lost their building powers in 1988, close to two million council homes were sold and funding for social housing switched to the voluntary sector. However, because the voluntary sector kept on expanding with the help of the state, housing’s contribution to social mixing never ceased, although it was more limited.

The revival of socially mixed communities

  • 23 ODPM, 2003, p. 4.
  • 24 Ibid.

14One of the recent reincarnations of the mixed community philosophy came in 2003 with the New Labour Sustainable Communities programme. The programme involved not only designating four growth areas in the South East of England for further housebuilding but above all making sure these communities were sustainable. This meant “creating communities that can stand on their own feet and adapt to changing demands of modern life. Places where people want to live and will continue to want to live”23. Housing, beside good governance, public transport, a healthy environment, or residents’ participation, featured among the key requirements. The official document published to launch the programme underlined the need for “a well-integrated mix of decent homes of different types and tenures to support a range of household sizes, ages and incomes”24.

  • 25 I am referring here to the opposition between bonding (negative) and bridging (good) social capital (...)
  • 26 Namely the spatial concentration of poverty and social dysfunctionalities that leads to residents b (...)
  • 27 ODPM, 2005: §1.37.
  • 28 Cheshire, 2007.
  • 29 JFR, 2008: 2-3.
  • 30 PPG3, 2000: 1.

15The programme was based on the notion that declining neighbourhoods across the country were a symptom of a low sense of citizenship as well as social exclusion from mainstream society. On the contrary, strong and sustainable communities were premised on inclusiveness, strong bridging social capital25 and social interaction. The former were particularly associated with mono- tenure council estates which crystallised “ the neighbourhood effect”26, and which were said to foster low bridging social capital and widen social divisions27. Although the notion that mixed communities have benefits is controversial28, it underlay the New Labour planning policies introduced between 1997 and 2010 and accounts for the emphasis place on mixed-tenure housing29. Even before the programme was launched, the 2000 planning guidance on housing had made it clear that the objective of the government was to encourage people to live together: “New housing development help secure a better mix by avoiding the creation of large areas of housing of similar characteristics”30.The New Labour government was at pain to stress that its housing policies were about much more than buildings.

  • 31 ODPM, 2005: 6.

It is about people… and it is about building an integrated and tolerant society where people from different races, ages and backgrounds feel free and happy to mix together in housing, in education and in leisure facilities. A society in which the diversity of people’s background and circumstances are appreciated and positively valued31.

  • 32 SEU, 1998, 1.
  • 33 DETR, 1997: §4.
  • 34 ODPM, 2005b, §14.
  • 35 ODPM, 2000, 7.
  • 36 CLG, 2006, annex B.
  • 37 DETR, 1998: 1.
  • 38 DETR, 1998: §10.
  • 39 DETR, 2000: 9.
  • 40 Barker, 2004: 96.
  • 41 CLG, 2006: §29.

16This belief in the benefits of mixed tenure communities accounts for the government taking on an active role and for a number of initiatives: first, the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) was set up in 1997 and tasked with “develop[ing] integrated and sustainable approaches to the problems of the worst housing estates”32. Second, planning guidelines were rewritten to underline the notion of sustainable development33 and “community cohesion”34. The official planning aim of the government was clearly expressed as “the development of mixed and balanced communities”35. Third, the notion of affordable housing (defined at the time as “social rented and intermediate housing”36) moved to the fore: housing guidelines to local authorities (PPG3) were overhauled in order to make sure that local authorities included in their local plans provisions explicitly designed to secure affordable housing when local needs could be demonstrated37. Local authorities were encouraged to make use of a mechanism called “planning gain” introduced by the 1971 Town and Country Planning (section 106) and first mentioned in connection with affordable housing in circular 7/91 under John Major’s government. This made it possible for local authorities to negotiate specific housing gains with developers in return for planning permission. Specific guidelines were published to direct local authorities to include in their local development plans a requirement for a percentage of affordable homes for every housing development of 25 or more dwellings or residential sites of more than 1 hectare (15 dwellings or half a hectare in London)38. “Failure to apply this policy could justify the refusal of planning permission”39. Fourth, renewed attempts were made at calculating the number of social homes needed (no calculation was made between 1979 and the 1995 White Paper, Our Future Homes). In her 2004 report on housing supply commissioned by the government, Kate Barker drew on calculations made by housing specialist A. Holmans in 1996 to arrive at a range of 48,000 to 54,000 social units per year40. Fifth, as a result of major changes to the regional governance of housing, by 2006, local authorities were requested to include in their local plan a target for the amount of affordable housing to be provided, specifying targets for social rented and intermediate affordable housing41, in line with regional housing market assessments. Finally, new housing schemes were devised to broaden the number of intermediate products designed to meet varied housing needs: most relied on shared ownership (including various forms of the Homebuy programme as of 2001) and were offered to key workers and first time buyers.

  • 42 Bowie, 2017; Murie, 2018.

17As a result of becoming aware of the housing crisis around 2000, the then New Labour governments stepped up measures meant to address the crisis as well as create socially-mixed communities until it lost the general election of 2010. The formation of the coalition government marked a turning point in post-war housing policy42. It can be seen as a throwback to the Thatcher years and a loss of interest in balanced communities. State intervention declined and efforts were made to remove constraints on the market, although a modest policy shift towards more state support could be detected under T. May.

A worrying U-turn : 2010-2020

  • 43 Bowie, 2017: 12.

18The social policy measures implemented under the coalition D. Cameron can be accounted for by his determination to be “as radical in social reform as Margaret Thatcher was in economic reform”, as he declared in 2008 in interviews with journalist Dylan Jones, and implement the conclusions of the policy review conducted in opposition by the Conservative party. In housing, policies derived from three priorities: cutting overall public spending by £32 billion before 2015; rolling back what was initially described as ‘Big Government’; restoring the freedom of the market. All in all, these years illustrate the “abandonment of the post-war consensus that the government had a responsibility to provide homes for those unable to access the private market”43.

  • 44 Bochel and Powell, 2016: 16
  • 45 Bowie, 2017: 13.
  • 46 CLG, 2012: 50
  • 47 Bowie, Ibid.
  • 48 HM Government, 2011: 23.

19A first obstacle to building mixed communities can be seen in austerity measures. Indeed, between 2010 and 2016, housing policy unfolded against a backdrop of public spending cuts that made it increasingly difficult to mitigate housing inequalities. The Cameron years saw a major decline in the housing budget. It has been calculated that under the Coalition, spending on housing fell by close to 70%44 and that housing investment took the biggest cuts: the average grant per (submarket) new home fell from £51,178 2008-2011 to £21,920 between 2011 and 2015. All in all, the national housing investment programme was cut from £2.97 to 0.45 billion a year between 2009-10 and 2011-1545. Social housing bore the brunt of the cuts: the term “affordable housing” ceased to be synonymous with “social housing” and was given a broader meaning46 so that the Government’s funding programme (Affordable Homes Programme) could be gradually shifted towards intermediate housing and then low cost home ownership as of 2015. The Cameron government went as far as to exclude social rent from the bidding process in the Affordable Homes Programme 2016-2147. The 2011 Housing White Paper Laying the Foundations made the Coalition’s intentions clear: the paper stated that the government intended to deliver affordable housing in a different way and bring in for-profit providers (§44) and specified: “We support a range of different affordable housing options – from affordable rented housing to affordable home ownership options, such as shared ownership and shared equity schemes”48. In practice, it meant that all subsidised social housing programmes came to an end, something that had not happened even during the Thatcher years. The future of social housing became even bleaker when in 2012 the Coalition removed the discount restrictions on the Right to Buy introduced by Labour, extended the RTB to housing associations and forced local authorities to sell their high end council homes when they became empty under the Housing and Planning Act 2016.

20Austerity measures were extended to financial assistance with housing costs. As early as June 2010, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, G. Osborne, had announced his intention to address the issue in the private and public housing sectors based on the argument that it had gone from £11 to 21billion between 1998 and 2010 and some households were under-occupying their homes49. The decision was officially motivated by a desire to combat “welfare dependency” as the Conservatives had already stated in opposition50. This led to the passing of the Welfare Reform Act, 2012 which altered the calculation of housing allowance (no longer based on the median rent but on the lowest 30 % of local rents), limited it to between £ 280 to £417 per week according to the size of the dwelling and excluded the under-35s (now only allowed to shared accommodation) (DCLG, 2012). The total amount of benefits was capped at £26,000 per year per household and then cut to £23,000 in London and £20,000 in England) by the Welfare Reform and Work Act, 2016. As regards the public sector, the Welfare Reform Act 2012 has made it possible to cut the housing benefit of tenants by 14% to 25% when their home was thought to be under-occupied. Both housing allowance and benefit have subsequently been included in the Universal Credit which the Coalition government introduced to replace gradually different existing benefits as of April 2013.

  • 51 HM Government, 2011: 71.
  • 52 Ibid.: 12.
  • 53 Bowie, 2017: 111.

21Second, building socially mixed communities was made more difficult by a number of planning changes designed to roll back the so called “Big State” inherited from the Labour governments. The regional governance structures set up by New Labour before 2010 in order to improve strategic planning across regions and improve housing supply were dismantled by the Localism Act 2011. Out went the Regional Assemblies in charge of planning and housing and their Regional Strategic Housing Market Assessments designed to help match needs and supply at the regional level as did the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit set up in 2006 to help regions improve affordability. These changes were implemented in the name of localism, greater democracy, and cost-effectiveness51. In came Neighbourhood Planning, namely the right for local communities to choose “where they want new homes”52, draw up a neighbourhood plan through a Neighbourhood Forum as well as a requirement for developers to consult residents. However, neighbourhood planning was widely viewed as “a charter for Nimbys53” and created concern among the housing and planning professions in view of the new opportunities given to residents to oppose the building of social housing locally.

  • 54 Fée, 2016.

22Third, the Coalition also sought to roll back the State in the housing sector by watering down national rules and giving local authorities more discretionary power over the management of their housing stock. As announced in the Emergency budget in June 2010 and officialised in the Localism Act 2011, local authorities were given the right to raise council rents for new lets up to 80% of local market rents. The new definition was made official in the National Planning Policy Framework 2012. Furthermore, the Act made it possible for local authorities to introduce minimum two-year tenancies, thus abolishing the life-long tenancies created in 1919 (the 2016 Housing and Planning Act 2016 made it compulsory to limit new tenancies to between 2 and 5 years). The possibility for poor households to access and stay in the council housing sector was also restricted by section 160 ZA (6 and 7) of the 2011 Act. It enables local authorities to take over the management of their waiting lists and set other criteria than “need” to access their waiting list. In some local authorities, social housing has become a conditional right based on local requirements and no longer on income54.

  • 55 HM Government, 2011: 1.
  • 56 “[…] the costs of any requirements […] should […] provide competitive returns to a willing landowne (...)

23Fourth, a number of changes were introduced to alter the balance of power between local authorities and developers, in order to shift to “an approach that works with, not against, the grain of the market”55.These have made it increasingly difficult to secure new affordable rental units (let alone social housing) and build socially mixed communities. The changes mostly derive from the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework which was meant to update and summarise thousands of planning guidelines into 65 pages. At the heart of the NPPF is a tension between planning for “sustainable, inclusive and mixed communities” (CLG, 2012: §50) and freeing the market. Although the government emphasised that the planning system had a social role to play in “facilitating social interaction and creating healthy, inclusive communities” (CLG, 2012: §69) and that this could be achieved by “providing the supply of housing required to meet the needs of present and future generations” (Ibid., §7), a number of provisions appear to be at odds with this goal. Paradoxically, resorting to section 106 agreements (see above) to have social housing built became increasingly difficult at a time when government funding for social housing started drying up and section 106 became the local authorities’ main source if not the only one for new social (more generally submarket) housing (Bowie, 2017: 72). The 2012 version of the NPPF (§ 173) thus specified that no planning requirement on developers should prevent developers and landowners from making a “competitive return”56.

  • 57 Starter Homes is a subsidised intermediate home ownership programme launched in 2016 whereby the go (...)
  • 58 Bowie, 2017: 11.

24This major planning change was compounded by a provision in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 which made it a duty for councils to keep 20% of their residential development capacity for Starter Homes57, an intermediate home ownership programme that benefited from most of the Government’s Affordable Housing Programme, post 2016. This provision was thought to further reduce the ability of local authorities to implement their own policies 58as the Starter Homes scheme did not necessarily meet their housing needs, was not affordable for low income households and could be forced on local authorities by the Government under the terms of the 2016 Act.

25The change of Prime minister in 2016 signalled a discreet shift from 2017 onwards and a return to a political stance more favourable to local authorities and their housing role: under Theresa May, the subsidised housing bidding programme was extended again to social rent homes, as of June 201859. Funding for social housing was increased: in 2017, an extra £1.4 billion for housing associations and other not for profit developers was announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn statement, with a view to building 225,000 affordable homes before 202260. The 2018 Green Paper A New Deal for Social Housing, published in the wake of the Grenfell tower fire, recognised the responsibility of successive governments, indicated renewed official support for social housing and underlined its importance for socially-mixed communities. It read: “We want to celebrate the thriving communities that exist across the country with social housing at their heart…. We must recognise the important contribution social housing residents make to the vibrant and diverse communities that make up our country61.” Less emphasis was placed on local authorities building affordable home ownership units at the expense of rented housing and the official target for Starter Homes was lowered from 20% to 10%62. Crucially, government support for viability assessments in favour of affordable homes (see below) increased thanks to the role played by Toby Lloyd from Shelter as Ms. May’s housing adviser63. The Affordable Homes Programme was broadened as of June 2018 in order to include social housing again and in October 2018 the government announced that the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap that prevented local authorities from borrowing to build would be lifted.

26The Conservative manifesto published under Boris Johnson’s leadership in the weeks leading to the December 2019 general election committed the party to more social housing and a new White Paper on the subject (The Conservative Party, 2019). In his March 2020 budget speech, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced that the Johnson government would increase funding for affordable housing by £ 9.5 billion but failed to specify the percentage going to social housing. It remains to be seen whether the Johnson government will support a more inclusive form of housing policy over the long term similar to the one that was shaping up before T. May’s resignation.

Development and socially mixed communities

27As a result of these planning changes, developers have modified their practices for the worse. This has led to a fall in new (real affordable) social rent units and, in reaction, a vigorous response from some authorities like the Greater London Authority (GLA).

  • 64 Bowie, 2017: 67.
  • 65 Booth, 2019.
  • 66 Shelter, 2017.
  • 67 Bowie, 2017: 31.
  • 68 Shelter, 2017: 4.

28The aforementioned 2012 NPPF clause has had a number of (unintended?) consequences: first, whereas it was generally accepted that developers should pocket a 15% profit prior to the 2008 recession, the implicit definition of “competitive” was altered and developers started seeking a 20% return after 200864 as confirmed by recent government figures65. Second, many developers have started arguing that delivering the previously-agreed percentage of affordable units would make it impossible to achieve a competitive return66. Third, on the basis of their own viability assessment (that local authorities find difficult to challenge for lack of staff), they have increasingly appealed to planning inspectors to revise past planning obligation agreements, using a new provision in the Growth and Infrastructure Act 201367. Fourth, a number of developers have been able to win development sites by overpaying for land, safe in the knowledge that they can later argue that the affordable housing units required by the local authority make the scheme non-viable and they can have it ‘knocked down’68.

  • 69 Shelter, 2017: 5.
  • 70 Ibid.: 6.
  • 71 Ibid.: 7.

29This loophole has had a major impact on the provision of affordable homes and in turn on building socially mixed communities. Research by Shelter shows that section 106 agreements delivered 10,000 fewer homes a year between 2012 and 2016 than between 2007-2012, a decline from 52% to 38% of all new affordable homes69. Across 11 local authorities covering nine of England’s biggest cities, it estimated that when viability assessment was used the percentage of affordable units in new schemes fell to 7% against an average of 28%. This amounted to a 79% reduction compared to local plans requirements70. However, the study noted that there were wide variations in the use of viability assessment across the country (with an average of 44% of new development schemes), and that the larger the scheme, the more likely it was to be used71.

30As a result of changes in national policy, the provision of affordable new social rent homes has collapsed. Of the 57,495 affordable homes built in 2018-19 (up from 42,198 in 2016-17), only 6,287 were social rent units (down from 39,562 in 2010-11) (CLG, table 1000). The shift in government funding priorities can be seen in the 29,135 affordable rent homes built in 2018-19 (with rents up to 80% of the market rate). The failure of the starter homes programme is visible, too with only 2,603 homes built in the same year (up from 1,968 units when it was launched) (Ibid.)

31The decline in affordable homes due to changes in planning procedures has led to a reaction from a number of local authorities. Some, like Bristol and Manchester, now require that developers’ viability assessments be made public and no longer remain confidential on the basis of so-called ‘sensitive information’ (Pidd, 2018). Others, like Cambridge, insist on schemes including 40% affordable housing before giving any planning permission (Shelter, 2017: 25). The GLA, since mayor Sadiq Khan was elected in 2016, has decided to address the issue head on and has come up with tougher measures. We shall look at them in detail to see how the largest local authority in the country is organising the fight back.

  • 72 Within this percentage, at least 30% should be low cost rent, 30% intermediate, the remaining 40% t (...)
  • 73 Mayor of London, 2017: 6.
  • 74 Mayor of London, 2017: 1.21.
  • 75 Interview with Cabinet member for regeneration, Camden, 27 July 2017.
  • 76 Interview with the Head of the London Plan and Growth Strategies for the GLA, 14 November 2019.
  • 77 Ibid.

32On 13 August 2018, the Mayor published a draft new London Plan, making it the third after the 2004 and 2011 ones. Following an Examination in Public between 15th January and 22nd May 2019, a Panel of Inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State issued their report to the Mayor on the revised Plan on 8th October 2019. On 9th December 2019, the Mayor published the final draft of the Plan that was then sent to the Secretary of State for approval. The Mayor’s foreword describes the Plan as “a break with previous London Plans” in that it seeks to set out tangible actions (Mayor of London, 2019: 5) and sets the plan the overarching aim of building “strong and inclusive communities” (Ibid.: 23). The connection between housing provision and social diversity is underscored throughout the document. The housing section of the revised Plan reminds readers that the 2017 London Strategic Housing Market Assessment identified an overall housing need for 66,000 new homes every year, including 43,000 genuinely affordable ones. It sets an overall target of 65,00 units per year, (of which 50% should be affordable for schemes above 10 units), and 10-year housing targets for each borough (Ibid.: 207). To achieve this ambitious target (when M. Kahn was elected only 13% of planning permissions were for affordable homes, Mayor of London, 2017: 3), the Mayor changed the planning process and published a Special Planning Guidance in 2017. This introduced a 35% affordable homes threshold72, and thus created two routes to planning permission: i) applications for schemes that meet or exceed the thresholds without public subsidy are not required to submit viability assessment but can be reviewed within two years of permission being granted; ii) schemes that do not meet the threshold or require public subsidy are required to submit detailed viability assessments and are reviewed by a new GLA team at the start and the end of development to check whether viability has improved73. Private schemes receiving public subsidies are expected to provide at least 40% affordable homes and schemes by registered social landlords or development on public land from 50 to 60%. In any case, a greater degree of transparency than in the past should prevail and developers’ viability assessment should be available for public scrutiny and contain the full working model, as well as enough financial and technical detail for public scrutiny74. When the Mayor is not satisfied with a planning application, or when the application has potential strategic significance or includes more than 150 units, he can “call it in” and have it examined by the new five-strong team set up in the GLA. The team was created to boost the expertise of the GLA and help boroughs counter developers’ claims. Indeed, boroughs rarely have the in-house resources to review applications and often needed to resort to private consultants75. The team can act hands-on with the boroughs reviewing their local plan and even ask them to fill in a letter of conformity to make sure the new threshold is included in the plan76. At the time of writing, the result was that most developers had factored in the 35% threshold and that planning applications averaged 35% of affordable homes, markedly up on Boris Johnson’s years as Mayor77.


  • 78 Interview with the Assistant Director for Housing, Hackney, 15 November 2019.

33As can be seen from the above, housing policy was used to foster social mixing for a long time in the UK, mainly through the expansion of a council (or more generally social) housing stock with the help of state subsidies. The aim was to avoid social segregation and break the link between income and place of residence. Living together in the UK has been made more difficult since 2010 as a result of the housing policies implemented. These have marked a clear break with the housing consensus (seriously dented during the Thatcher and Major years but never fully rejected) that developed after World War II in favour of building and then supporting mixed communities through various government measures, tools and subsidies in favour of social housing. The “cold climate” that developed in the housing field after 2010 has led the GLA and other local authorities to look for robust answers to the housing crisis (sometimes by building social housing themselves again78) in order to secure the future of mixed communities. More leeway to do so was given to them under T. May’s governments. Housing policy being eminently political in England (and the UK in general), it is difficult to envisage a long-term commitment in favour of mixed communities by the Conservative government formed after the 2019 general election and a return to an interventionist housing policy of the kind implemented under New Labour. The electoral gains made in Northern England by the Conservatives in December 2019 may however make them more sensitive to social housing issues. On the other hand, the Covid-19 sanitary crisis and lockdown in Spring 2020 as well as the potential financial consequences of Brexit may reduce the government’s scope for action. It may take years for the social housing sector to recover, especially without further government support.

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1 DCLG, Fixing our Broken Housing Market, Cm 9352, London, HMSO, 2017.

2 Ibid.: 9.

3 Barker, 2006: 91.

4 DCLG, table 213.

5 DCLG, House building: permanent buildings started and completed by tenure in England, London, DCLG, 2019.

6 Bowie, 2017: 63.

7 Ibid.

8 DCLG, 2017: 10 and 13.

9 Ibid.: §3.35.

10 Bowie, 2017: 88.

11 Shelter, 2017: 11.

12 Wilson and Barton, 2020: 7.

13 See Thornley, 1991: 26.

14 See also The 1986 Nuffield Report on Town and Country Planning.

15 Hansard, 16/03/1949, vol. 462, col. 2126-7.

16 DOE, 1971: 42

17 Claphman, Kemp, Smith, 1990: 91.

18 Town and Country Planning, 1968: 12.

19 James Gregory, 2009: 23.

20 SEU, 2001: 13.

21 Colenutt, 2020.

22 See Fée, 2013.

23 ODPM, 2003, p. 4.

24 Ibid.

25 I am referring here to the opposition between bonding (negative) and bridging (good) social capital coined by R. Putnam (2000).

26 Namely the spatial concentration of poverty and social dysfunctionalities that leads to residents being socialised in a deviant culture which reduces their life chances and social inclusion. See Wilson, 1987.

27 ODPM, 2005: §1.37.

28 Cheshire, 2007.

29 JFR, 2008: 2-3.

30 PPG3, 2000: 1.

31 ODPM, 2005: 6.

32 SEU, 1998, 1.

33 DETR, 1997: §4.

34 ODPM, 2005b, §14.

35 ODPM, 2000, 7.

36 CLG, 2006, annex B.

37 DETR, 1998: 1.

38 DETR, 1998: §10.

39 DETR, 2000: 9.

40 Barker, 2004: 96.

41 CLG, 2006: §29.

42 Bowie, 2017; Murie, 2018.

43 Bowie, 2017: 12.

44 Bochel and Powell, 2016: 16

45 Bowie, 2017: 13.

46 CLG, 2012: 50

47 Bowie, Ibid.

48 HM Government, 2011: 23.

49, consulté le 5 février 2017.

50 Social Policy Justice Group, 2006: 11.

51 HM Government, 2011: 71.

52 Ibid.: 12.

53 Bowie, 2017: 111.

54 Fée, 2016.

55 HM Government, 2011: 1.

56 “[…] the costs of any requirements […] should […] provide competitive returns to a willing landowner and willing developer to enable the development to be deliverable”, §173.

57 Starter Homes is a subsidised intermediate home ownership programme launched in 2016 whereby the government provides a 20% discount on market value new homes through direct or indirect subsidy to purchasers, repayable if sold within 5 years. This complements the Help to Buy programme launched in 2013 whereby the Government provides equity loans at up to 20% of the value of a newly built home for first time buyers.

58 Bowie, 2017: 11.

59 retrieved 7 March 2020.

60 DCLG, 2017: 17.

61 MHCLG, 2018: §115.

62 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2017: § 4.17See also 2018 A New Deal for Social Housing, Cm 9671, 2018, §137.

63 Interview with the head of the London Plan and Growth Strategies for the GLA, 14 November 2019.

64 Bowie, 2017: 67.

65 Booth, 2019.

66 Shelter, 2017.

67 Bowie, 2017: 31.

68 Shelter, 2017: 4.

69 Shelter, 2017: 5.

70 Ibid.: 6.

71 Ibid.: 7.

72 Within this percentage, at least 30% should be low cost rent, 30% intermediate, the remaining 40% to be determined by the LPA (Mayor of London, 2017: §2.40).

73 Mayor of London, 2017: 6.

74 Mayor of London, 2017: 1.21.

75 Interview with Cabinet member for regeneration, Camden, 27 July 2017.

76 Interview with the Head of the London Plan and Growth Strategies for the GLA, 14 November 2019.

77 Ibid.

78 Interview with the Assistant Director for Housing, Hackney, 15 November 2019.

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David Fée, « Living together in the UK : when housing becomes an obstacle », Observatoire de la société britannique, 26 | 2021, 173-192.

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David Fée, « Living together in the UK : when housing becomes an obstacle », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 26 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 17 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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David Fée

Professeur des Universités en civilisation britannique à l'Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

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