The White Paper Supper Club is open

13 Aug 2020

Planning and Environment

By Josef Cannon

It is August 2020 and I have not been to a restaurant since March. This is partly to do with COVID-19 and partly attributable to my new (and otherwise glorious) baby. Nonetheless, I am missing the experience of restaurants. I hope this context permits some forgiveness for what follows.

The viral marketing campaign sought to tantalise the tastebuds: an article by Secretary of State Robert Jenrick in The Times, full of intense flavours and lip-smacking descriptions (albeit little detail of what the coming feast would actually comprise). We all licked our lips nonetheless.

Then, at midnight on Wednesday, in the best traditions of ‘event dining’, the menu was finally announced, the plates set down, and the silver cloches lifted with a flourish. The White Paper Supper Club was open. For those of us with a preference for housing land supply, this was going to be a treat: the foreword from none other than the PM told us this feast would be built around our favourite topic:

Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places“.

Pushing aside, for the moment, the slight suspicion that this was the equivalent of ‘hand-crafted coffee’ or ‘artisan-built sandwiches’ (in other words, nonsense), we pressed on to see what dishes would be made of our favourite ingredient.

An early amuse-bouche of the mythical figure of 300,000 homes a year being required (and the accompanying splash of tartness to offset that flavour, a reminder that the government’s own mandated method for delivering new homes was not capable of delivering that number). We salivated: that agrodolce combination was having the desired effect. Who cares if none of it was true?

Then the main course arrived. ‘A standard method for establishing housing requirement figures‘. That sounded familiar. A new take on steak and kidney pudding? Egg and chips? The familiar, deconstructed and reimagined for the 21st-century diner? Well, let’s have a look at what the dish actually contains:

  • A ‘binding’ standard housing requirement, unlike (so the menu says) the current system of local housing need (a surprise: regular diners at the existing Standard Method Canteen might have felt pretty constrained by the present system, but no matter).
  • A means of distributing 300,000 homes across the country each year (a nationally-set total, distributed across the local authorities, ensuring enough homes ‘in the right places’ – but would these flavours not clash horribly?).
  • Distribution affected by the size of urban settlements, by affordability (again, a familiar flavour), and land constraints (so no more ‘objectively assessed need’, an outdated concept, in the bin with devilled eggs and dressed tripe).
  • A ‘buffer’ to ensure enough land is provided to account for the drop-off rate between permissions and completions.

Hold on. That’s a jarring note: had a stray anchovy found its way into the custard? As has been powerfully articulated by Dr Quintin Bradley in the document The wrong answers to the wrong questions, published by the TCPA this week, there is strong evidence that it is not the want of planning permissions that is constraining delivery of new homes, but delivery on sites with planning permission: wouldn’t this ‘buffer’ just tempt those who hold land with permission to hold off on delivering the homes permitted, for exactly the reasons Dr Bradley sets out: retaining a pipeline of future income, managing demand and prices, and all the while making it more likely that the local authority will fall foul of the ‘buffer’ and be forced to grant yet more permissions? Well, we can leave that anchovy by the side: maybe anchovies DO have a place in custard – who thought salt and caramel was going to be the world-conquering combo it turned out to be?

The garnish and side dishes were a comforting reminder of the familiar: the housing delivery test will remain, and sprinkled liberally over the whole thing is the presumption in favour of sustainable development, that hard-to-place flavour we all know but find so hard to describe: the umami of this new culinary universe?

What will not be served (Gordon Ramsay once threw a diner out of his restaurant for asking for ketchup with his red mullet) is the continuing requirement to demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land: the proposed dish will cover those flavour bases itself.

So: did the menu work? There were certainly some interesting ideas, although the central concept (delivering 300,000 homes) is still lacking a certain grounding: perhaps it could be marinaded in some factual basis, or seared over the hot coals of reality? And the inclusion of the ‘buffer’ seems to miss the essential point of the dish: people live in homes, not planning permissions, and meeting a lack of delivery on sites with planning permission with a threat to grant more planning permissions seems oddly circular.

What is clear is that diners at the White Paper Supper Club did not leave hungry. We may not have enjoyed every dish, every flavour combination, and there are some discordant notes, but this was an ambitious attempt at reinventing the genre. A late-night stop at Dr Bradley’s Wrong Answers bar, for coffee and petit fours, is recommended for good digestion.

Menu