Be positive: the Housing Minister’s challenge to CPRE

A week ago the Housing Minister Gavin Barwell gave CPRE’s annual lecture – you can read it here and view it here. The theme of the speech was familiar: how can we build more new homes? But it was a great improvement on similar speeches I have heard, for two reasons.

First, it was not based on the assumption that planning restrictions are the main reason we build too little. Pointing out that English councils granted planning permissions for 277,000 new homes in the year to September 2016, Barwell said: “If I was confident that all those homes would be built quickly we wouldn’t have needed to publish a housing white paper. But I’m not confident. There’s a large and growing gap between homes being granted planning permission and homes being started. And people can’t live in a planning permission.”

So the focus of the speech was not how to weaken planning but how to get homes built – ‘fixing our broken housing market’. Hurrah for that. CPRE has been banging on for ages about how the business model of the big builders militates against a step change in output; about the need to help small builders; about the merits of custom build; and about why we should not fixate on numbers alone, but also consider quality, affordability and, in particular, the special needs of rural areas. It was good to hear many of these themes rehearsed in the Minister’s speech.

The second reason for liking Gavin Barwell’s speech was that he engaged with legitimate concerns about development. Continue reading ‘Be positive: the Housing Minister’s challenge to CPRE’

Housing: Where’s the Plan

As we wait for the Housing White Paper, it is worth considering the economist Kate Barker’s ideas for getting more houses built.

Kate Barker produced two influential reports[1] for Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor, the first on housing supply (calling for a step change in house building to bring down the rate of house price inflation), the second on planning (which argued that it should be more responsive to market signals).

She was attacked by the Conservative opposition of the time – “Barker” became shorthand for building on greenfield land – but her views still carry great weight in the Treasury. And the Treasury view still carries great weight across government.

In September 2014 Kate Barker published Housing: Where’s the Plan? She says she has “become less convinced that it will be possible to build enough to meet demand in much of southern England, given the strength of local opposition in many places”. She also accepts that “a further radical reform of planning now would be unhelpful”.

So what is to be done to get more homes built? The book is well worth reading, a hundred well-written pages covering a lot of ground. Here are some talking points with particular relevance the White Paper. Continue reading ‘Housing: Where’s the Plan’

The Housing White Paper: what the government should do

There will be much to welcome in this month’s Housing White Paper. We expect a big emphasis on brownfield development and more support to enable local authority planning departments to do their job. Best of all, the White Paper looks set to address the main cause of the housing shortage: not planning or a lack of land, but the system’s over-dependence on a dozen big companies to deliver the new homes the country needs.

For too long the state’s responsibility for decent housing has been outsourced to private developers who have neither the will nor capacity to build on the scale needed. Now at last Ministers seem willing to tackle this market failure, for instance by helping small builders and promoting custom build and ‘modern methods of construction’. Slow build-out rates and landbanking by developers may also be tackled. There could even be more money for social housing and greater scope for councils to build homes again.

But we will not see a return to the scale of pre-1979 public house building. This is a pity because short of a Harold Macmillan-style building programme, there will be no quick increase in output. The Government is therefore stuck with a policy of setting housing targets[1] and making more land available in the hope that developers increase their output. This approach has failed for years and it will continue to fail.

Not only does the policy not deliver more houses; unachievable targets make planning a battlefield, rather than a way of improving the country for everyone’s benefit.

Most people now accept that we need to build more homes. Too many people live in insecure, over-expensive accommodation: something must be done. Most would also agree this will involve some new housing on greenfield land.

So Ministers have a chance in the White Paper to build a broad national consensus in support of more and better house building. But they will get things badly wrong if it does not address concerns about how the current system is failing. Inflated targets, particularly in ‘high demand’ areas, have made planning toxic. Continue reading ‘The Housing White Paper: what the government should do’

Heathrow and the ‘just about managing’ places

This article appears in the Winter 2016 edition of the Fabian Society’s magazine, Fabian Review.

Everyone wants to rebalance the UK economy, to generate jobs and growth in the parts of the country that need them most. Or at least they are keen in theory and when they are making speeches about it. But in reality, public money is poured into the wealthiest, most vibrant parts of the country regardless of the cost to places that are (to coin a phrase) ‘just about managing’.

And even when efforts are made to support parts of the country that are struggling, they are undermined because even more is done to stoke growth in places that already doing well. The thinking seems to be that firms want to invest in booming areas; people want to live there (of course they do – that is where the jobs are); and that it is the job of government to anticipate and accommodate this growth.

So predict and provide rules the day, whether in transport (build more roads to meet demand), housing (build homes ‘where people want to live’) or economic development (create more jobs where there are already jobs).

All this, we are told, helps ‘UK plc’. But UK plc does not exist; it is a slogan, a category mistake. In reality, as has been endlessly discussed since Brexit, a growing economy does not necessarily benefit all parts of the country, and the places left behind may actively resent those that are doing well. Continue reading ‘Heathrow and the ‘just about managing’ places’

1300 lost villages

Here is my latest Countryman column.

It is sometimes hard to separate our love of all things countryside from our propensity for nostalgia.

Perhaps this is because while most of us now live in towns and cities, we came from the countryside, however many generations back. Or perhaps it is because it is pleasanter to think of the milk maids of Hardy’s Wessex or a picturesque old windmill than a modern milking shed or wind turbine.

But another reason may be our sense that countryside is disappearing quite rapidly. Continue reading ‘1300 lost villages’

Housing for town and country

Here is my column from the December issue of the Countryman, available in all good newsagents.

Two recent conversations captured for me, the good and bad sides of the housing debate.

First, I was chatting to a woman hoping to move with her young family from a large town to the sort of village in which she grew up. But almost every village she looks at is facing proposals to double in size in the next few years. “We don’t want to move somewhere that never changes or grows,” she says, “but they’re planning to destroy what makes these places special.”

These are villages where the local authority is deemed not to have an up to date local plan or an adequate supply of land for housing. Developers circle them with proposals for new estates knowing that they will be hard to turn down. This is not an accident of policy. It is England’s planning policy in 2016. And it is leading to angry resistance across the shires. Continue reading ‘Housing for town and country’

How to intensify the housing crisis

Tomorrow the Government will decide how it plans to intensify the housing crisis in the south-east and usher in more strife over house building. In other words, it is going to decide whether it favours expanding Heathrow, Gatwick or both.

The justification for airport expansion in the south-east is largely economic. Both airports have spent astonishing amounts of money lobbying MPs and others.[1] Heathrow, we are told, will add £211 billion to the UK economy by 2050 and create 80,000 new jobs in London and the South East. Gatwick’s backers claim a second runway “will generate 21,000 jobs at the airport, as well as indirect and catalytic employment” in “places such as” Croydon, Hastings and Brighton, i.e. across a pretty wide area.

This is investment that could help rebalance the UK’s economy, already skewed to the southern counties of England. These are jobs that could be created in the places that need them most, where there is more space within existing towns and cities to accommodate the workers. Continue reading ‘How to intensify the housing crisis’

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