Right to Rent: White Paper to signal a ‘change in tone’ on government housing strategy

Conservative housing policy likely to shift tomorrow to put more emphasis on the rental sector

The Tory government’s delayed Housing White Paper – finally due to be published tomorrow (Tuesday) – is likely to signal a shift in thinking for the “party of home ownership”, according to various weekend leaks/previews, with an emphasis on building up the rental sector.

Housing Minister Gavin Barwell told the BBC that the document signified a “change in tone” from the Conservative party (whose latest manifesto states that “everyone who works hard should be able to own a home of their own”), offering a realm of proposals to boost the UK’s rental sector.

New policies – which follow the Autumn Statement’s proposed ban on letting agents’ fees to tenants – are designed to encourage more build-to-rent projects, with a particular focus on affordable properties (which Barwell defines as being those offered at 20% or more below market value). “Whether you’re trying to buy or you’re trying to rent, housing in this country has become less and less affordable because for 30 or 40 years governments have not built enough homes,” said the minister on the Sunday Politics, “and this White Paper is fundamentally trying to do something about that.” Alongside building more homes to rent, it’s likely that the White Paper will pitch longer minimum tenancy lengths; three years has been bandied around by various Westminster sources.

While the planning system is an obvious place to start a new housebuilding drive, it sounds as though the Green Belt is not up for grabs. “We are not going to weaken the protections [on the Green Belt],” Barwell told ITV’s Peston. “We have a clear manifesto commitment. There is no need to take huge tracts of land out of the green belt to solve the housing crisis. [Councils] can take land out of the Green Belt in exceptional circumstances but they should have looked at every alternative first. That policy is not going change.” If anything, sensitive tracts of land are likely to get more robust protection in the face of generally more free-and-easy planning rules; ancient woodlands, for instance, are due to get enhanced protection on a par with Green Belt.

Other mooted measures include steps to stop developers from sitting on development sites (“land-banking”) and “encouragement” for more mature homeowners to downsize, with Barwell arguing that “if we can make it easier for elderly people to move into [sheltered] accommodation, it releases family homes that we’re desperate [for].” That could involve assistance with moving costs or some kind of stamp duty shuffle.

There’s also talk of relaxed planning regulations in high-density areas in a bid to help hit ambitious local housebuilding targets. Height restrictions may be lifted in some areas, and locations near public transport hubs could get special measures to promote residential development.