Ian White takes a critical look at the recent white paper of the provision of new housing in England and Wales
The long-awaited housing white paper was released on 7 February, setting out the government’s plans to reform the supply of new homes in England. More than that, the government claims that the proposals will fix ‘our broken housing market’.
Promises like this from successive governments are nothing new, and recent statistics on house-building across the country show that all too often the promises are not fulfilled. Targets are missed, but rarely does a government take the blame.
The prime minister in her introduction talks of the unaffordability of housing in both the leasehold and freehold sectors. More than 2.2 million working households with below average incomes spend a third or more of their disposable income on housing, she says.
The white paper begins with the intention to plan for the right homes in the right places. I had mistakenly thought that this was the very essence of planning law and practice anyway, but presumably this needs fixing. To be fair, there isn’t too much doubt about that.
The white paper says that the Council of Mortgage Lenders predicts that by 2020, only a quarter of 30-year-olds will own their own home.
There is no debate then about the merits and demerits of renting property, which is of course the norm in some countries.
There’s not much mention either about the role of the solicitor in all of this. Should we perhaps be quietly relieved about that?
There is, however, quite a lot about land law, and in particular, transparency of land ownership and interests, which is one aspect of the proposals that has received little or no publicity.
The government would like to make data about land ownership control and interests more readily available to all. In the age of the open register, this is lost on me. Maybe the government needs to be more transparent in its intentions – what does this really mean in practice?
The white paper says that too many legal documents are not transparent, such as options to purchase. It’s a fine sentiment, but in reality, commercial imperatives will almost certainly continue to dictate confidentiality.
As the government espouses transparency, the cynical part of me says that transparency in the past has almost certainly increased and not reduced property fraud. Take, for instance, that simplifying and decluttering step known as ‘dematerialisation’, which has led to significant problems.
It is hoped that wide consultation of lawyers – those who see the realities day by day – will take place before further procedural changes take place at Land Registry, which could again lead to major ongoing problems.
Transparency always sounds good, but the reality of transparency (even if it could be achieved) is often very different
So is this just another bag of promises, well meant but unlikely to be implemented? And what will it mean, both to the housing market which is ‘broken’ and to the practitioner, who is often at breaking point?
As always, the devil is in the detail and only time will tell.
At worst, a white paper which sets out to mend a broken market may just make changes to property law and practice which could introduce hidden dangers
These views are my own and do not represent the views of the Property Section or the Law Society.