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Spotlight on housing in Kent: County needs to build 1,000 new homes a month to meet government housebuilding targets

This week KentOnline is shining a spotlight on the county’s housing crisis, as families struggle with rising mortgage payments, rents – and getting on the property ladder.

Inflation is partly to blame – but so is the lack of new homes. Here, Chris Britcher looks at just how many houses need to be built for Kent councils to hit government targets...

The lack of properties puts a strain on the market
The lack of properties puts a strain on the market

Close to 12,000 new homes – the equivalent of 1,000 a month – will need to be built in the county every year if government housing targets are to be met.

And with the last annual figure for new builds revealing just 6,820 were built during 2021/22 – according to the Office for National Statistics – the county is set to fall far short of expectation. All of which will continue to put the squeeze on an already under-pressure housing market.

With demand already outstripping supply, interest rate rises hiking mortgage payments and rental costs, it raises a question mark as to how the county intends to cope with the rising population’s insatiable need for housing.

However, local authorities are unlikely to face any action from Whitehall after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed at the end of last year that mandatory housing targets were to be scrapped.

It came, along with subsequent planning reform, after pressure from Tory backbenchers on the government’s stated aim of building 300,000 new homes a year. It will come as a surprise to few that major housing developments rarely sit well with already squeezed local communities who voice fears of whether the existing infrastructure can cope.

The scale of new homes laid bare in each authority's Local Plan
The scale of new homes laid bare in each authority's Local Plan

With an eye on an upcoming General Election, the mandatory targets were, instead, turned into ‘advisory’ targets.

The Local Government Association – which represents local authorities – “welcomed” the move saying it was a “starting point with a flexibility to take account of local circumstances”. It added the “algorithms and formulas used by the standard method can never be a substitute for local knowledge and decision-making by councils and communities who know their areas best”.

However, it added: “It would be helpful to have clarity about what ‘advisory’ means in practice.”

Yet it creates something of a Catch-22. We need more homes – but with the government stripping itself of the ‘stick’ with which to threaten local authorities with sanctions, just why should authorities now put themselves through the pain of pushing through often hugely unpopular developments?

Ultimately the answer is money – and a warning that Kent is unlikely to see any slowdown in building as a consequence.

Spencer Fortag says local economies benefit from new homes - which means we're unlikely to see any significant slowdown
Spencer Fortag says local economies benefit from new homes - which means we're unlikely to see any significant slowdown

“The indisputable truth is new property building is good for the local economy,” explains Spencer Fortag, who runs estate agent Dockside Property Services in Medway.

“It’s attracting new blood to local areas and with that new blood comes new money. People that live in an area spend money locally.

“So that's a good news story for the local economy. Local housebuilding always drives the local economy and then, of course, around that, you've got the whole building of the properties in the first place. Local builders will spend money locally, builders will buy materials locally. All of this spend is going into the local economy.”

Not to mention the added benefits of council tax revenues and government bonuses for house-building success – a significant incentive for cash-strapped local authorities still coming to grips with dramatic declines in central government funding.

Spencer added: “However, whenever there's a story about new property building, local residents raise concerns about infrastructure and I have to say that those concerns are legitimate.

“So what local councils and government need to make sure is, when they're building new homes, we have to make sure that there's enough doctors, parking spaces, school places, enough local infrastructure to facilitate new people coming to an area.”

Rishi Sunak scrapped mandatory housing targets after pressure from his MPs. Picture: Downing Street
Rishi Sunak scrapped mandatory housing targets after pressure from his MPs. Picture: Downing Street

Earlier this summer, the cross-party Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee in Westminster said the move to scrap the targets made it “difficult” to see how the homes the nation needs can be achieved as a consequence of the mandatory targets being dropped.

Its chair, Clive Betts, said: “We have a national shortage of housing in England and there’s evidence the government’s latest shake-up of planning rules is already having a damaging impact on efforts to increase the building of new homes.

“People are facing rising housing costs. Housing affordability is a major issue. For our economy and communities across the country, it’s crucial the government takes urgent action to encourage the building of more homes.

“Planning consultants say annual housebuilding will go down to around 150,000 a year under the proposed policy reforms. The prospect of a major hit to the building of new homes resulting from the government’s planning rule changes is deeply concerning, especially for people wanting to get on the housing ladder, families eager to move home, and communities crying out for affordable places to live.”

The housing targets in Kent and Medway are included in councils’ Local Plans – long-term, regularly updated, strategic proposals for housing, employment and transport across each district, borough or unitary authority.

Every district has seen an explosion in housing over recent years – and more is, inevitably, to come
Every district has seen an explosion in housing over recent years – and more is, inevitably, to come

The housing need is based around what is known as the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Set out by the government, it outlines its planning policies for local authorities to adhere to.

The NPPF requires local authorities to plan for their “objectively assessed need” for housing. Each target is designed to be a minimum goal. Kent, like the rest of the country, is lagging far behind hitting that minimum.

In total, KentOnline can reveal councils have pledged to build 11,670 homes a year across the county. Worth noting is that figure excludes Gravesham, which is already three years behind on producing its Local Plan. When contacted, it failed to respond to what housing target it is working towards.

But with neighbouring Dartford committed to building 790 homes, the final figure will almost certainly topple 12,000 dwellings per year.

Medway, which updated its Local Plan recently, has the highest target in the county of some 1,667 homes each year – followed by Thanet with 1,258, Canterbury on 1,252 and Maidstone on 1,157.

Housebuilding fuels local economies – and delivers homes for council tax payers
Housebuilding fuels local economies – and delivers homes for council tax payers

Each Local Plan stretches several years – in some cases decades – into the future. For example, Medway’s reaches to 2040 – Thanet’s to 2031. So the level of housing hoped for is extensive – but almost certainly not going to hit the levels expected. Or, perhaps more importantly, needed.

Adds Spencer Fortag: “The fact remains, you know, whatever the reason behind it, we're not building enough property to meet the demand.”

However, few would bet against the victors of the next General Election ushering in new targets to ensure the nation’s housing needs are met.

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