Sleepy Suburbs: the role of the suburbs in solving the housing crisis

In partnership with Centre for Cities, the leading research and policy institute, GL Hearn is pleased to share a research paper which explores the role of the suburbs in solving the housing crisis. Although the housing crisis has spurred great efforts from central and local government to end the shortage and build more homes, housing remains unaffordable in many cities and large towns. How can this lack of housing be resolved and what role can the suburbs play in delivering much needed housing for the future?

Download the full report here

Here, Ivan Tennant, Associate Director in our Economic Planning team, and research contributor, gives his perspective on the research.

The Sleepy Suburbs report shines a light on the limited level of development that is taking place in the suburbs of English cities and the research suggests this is resultant of flaws in the planning system that tends to concentrate new housing in central and edge locations. This matters, as many of these suburban locations are relatively close to centres of economic activity, and arguably include some of the first places planners should look for sustainable development sites.

The answers the report puts forward balance those that strengthen the market mechanism – weakening planning controls; requiring places of high demand to take on bigger housing numbers; and, incentivising councils to build homes in these locations - with proactive planning.

The task list for planners includes delivery of infrastructure, de-risking housing delivery and putting in place design codes to ensure fundamental urban design principles are respected. This balance of policy recognises that the market cannot be relied upon exclusively to deliver the right kind of homes in the right quantities. This is particularly true in cities that are centuries old where communities have a strong sense of belonging to where they live.

The most controversial proposal is to increase the multiple that is applied in the calculation to arrive at an area’s housing need (this forms part of the government’s standard method for arriving at housing targets). This small change could have a major effect on the numbers of homes planners are meant to support, particularly if (the current) cap was removed.

Whilst strengthening the market mechanism in this way is likely to increase the welfare of many households and improve cities’ productivity in the long-term, politically it would be extremely challenging and could only be achieved if complemented with proactive planning and substantial financial support from government.

The policy could only be introduced incrementally, and a transition period would need to be put in place. Local authorities are required to update their Local Plan every five years. This offers an opportunity to introduce the reform within the current plan-making cycle. The change to the multiple could be reflected in gradual up-lifts in the land supply trajectory over the fifteen-year lifetime of the plan. This would give councils the time to deliver infrastructure to unlock sites, find the necessary funding and deliver the leadership to deliver change at this scale.

A further key reform is the replacement of the current discretionary planning system with a rules-based approach. This requires a careful re-scoping of the plan-led system to ensure democratic legitimacy is not lost. In Germany, where such a system is used, Local government itself has more power to deliver change by acquiring sites and capturing the land value uplift to deliver infrastructure and affordable housing. As a result, it is trusted. A system that removes current institutional safeguards at the local level without complementary reform to ensure the public interest was protected would quickly fall into disrepute. For example, in the context of major change, residents could be given a mechanism for influence and a final say before a scheme is given the final go-ahead.

For GL Hearn, as practitioners in urban economics, planning, and placemaking, working with Centre for Cities, a think-tank with a reputation for excellence, allows us to develop and enrich collaborative thinking and harness new approaches. Through our planning and development consultancy teams we can support clients to overcome the very substantial challenges of planning complex urban regeneration and housing estate renewal projects. We have also enabled councils to engage with direct delivery of housing through a housing revenue account or wholly owned company. Our economics team helps councils build effective policy, such as fine-tuning the land supply trajectory to arrive at the correct balance of green and brownfield sites to ensure housing need is met in a timely way.

Interested in hearing more?

You can watch a webcast here where Anthony Breach, author of the report, presents the analysis and findings followed by a Q&A chaired by Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of Centre for Cities and with contributions from Ivan Tennant, Associate Director and research contributor from GL Hearn's Economic Planning team. 

You can also listen to the Centre for Cities podcast which explores the research in more detail here