Patrick Mooney, housing consultant and news editor of Housing, Management & Maintenance magazine asks whether a national body controlling housebuilding would be better than an ever-changing Housing Secretary?
The prospect of removing responsibility for a policy area as important as housing from a Cabinet level post would normally provoke a very strong reaction from myself and many others working in the industry.
But recent interventions from Michael Gove in the planning and house building arenas have got many thinking the unthinkable – and being prepared to contemplate radical change as the only way the country will adopt and implement the kind of policies and strategies that are so badly needed.
If we are to get anywhere close to building the volume of new houses required, then top of the ‘must have’ list is surely a bold and properly resourced, but carefully thought out plan, probably with a rolling 10 to 15 year timetable for delivery.
To give this idea the best chance of success, responsibility may need to be given to a national body with wide-ranging powers and a hefty budget, freed up from political interference and the General Election cycle which often produces stop start decision making and a money tap that gets turned on and off at the whim of HM Treasury.
For the last 13 years we have seen a succession of housing ministers come and go with a bewildering regularity. Secretaries of State have changed with less frequency, but none of them has really
stayed long enough to see through plans with any consistency.
Mr Gove has exhibited more stickability but it’s not clear if the development brief has benefitted from this.
A POLLUTER’S CHARTER?
Gove’s latest initiative (delivered jointly with the Environment Secretary Therese Coffey) has attracted fierce criticism from many quarters. In an amendment tabled to the Levelling Up bill, the Government wanted to order local authorities to ignore nutrient pollution from new housing developments in ecologically sensitive areas in England.
The Government claimed this ‘build anywhere charter’ would unlock land for at least an extra 100,000 new homes a year to be built, helping to deliver on its longstanding commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year.
The strong level of opposition it generated saw the amendment being defeated in the House of Lords. It remains to be seen how the Government will respond and whether it tries to get the change through in another way. Even if it can get Parliamentary approval, it is unlikely to have the desired impact on the building of new homes before the next general election (sometime within the next 15 months).
But we also need to consider why such a controversial measure is even necessary?
According to the Local Government Association, land for more than 2.6 million homes has already been allocated in Local Plans and nine of every ten planning applications are being approved.
Councillor Darren Rodwell, housing spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said: “Councils are committed to working with government and developers to build the housing the country needs.”
However, he added: “Local council planning departments face significant challenges in recruitment and retention and we need a comprehensive planning skills strategy to address this, which should be urgently brought forward.”
SIGNIFICANT CONCERNS VOICED
We also have significant concerns that the proposed Infrastructure Levy will result in fewer, not more, affordable homes delivered, will expose councils to excessive levels of financial risks,
and be increasingly burdensome and complex for local authorities to implement and manage.
In a polite but firmly worded reprimand to Gove and his cabinet colleagues, Mr Rodwell said: “National, top-down algorithms and formulas can never be a substitute for local knowledge and decision-making by those who know their areas best. We have been clear that councils and communities are best placed to decide how to build the right homes in the right places in their local areas, with the right infrastructure.”
Returning to the proposed U-turn on banning nutrients from ecologically sensitive areas, this initiative appears to run completely counter to another recent housing policy statement made by the same Michael Gove.
In his plan to ‘Build a Better Britain,’ the Housing Secretary announced that he wanted to see many more homes built in the right places. He argued that it’s better to build in existing cities and towns and on ex-industrial brownfield sites than on green fields and in green belts.
He also pointed out that it’s good to do so at high densities, which use land sparingly and can produce “productive, creative and attractive” places to live, like Paris, Edinburgh, New York and Barcelona.
This focus on concentrating the building of new homes in existing towns and cities surely runs counter to the idea of building 100,000 new homes a year in ecologically sensitive areas. It also appears to pander to the NIMBYist residents of suburban and rural England.
Meanwhile Mr Gove’s department recently handed back approximately £1.9bn to the Treasury, much of this was originally intended to be spent on new homes. This could have made a significant dent in the homelessness numbers and those waiting on local authority waiting lists.
A BETTER APPROACH IS POSSIBLE
Even among Gove’s supporters, there are fears the proposed rule changes to discharges of polluting nutrients would have caused problems.
Sam Hall, the director of the Conservative Environment Network, said: “Conservative environmentalists support both home ownership and environmental stewardship. The limited options for housebuilders to offset nutrient pollution from new homes meant that nutrient neutrality rules were acting as a de facto block on much-needed housing.”
“A better approach for both nature recovery and housing supply is possible, and so the government was right to seek an alternative. The Government’s mitigation measures, which will
avoid additional nutrient pollution entering rivers until 2030 when water treatment works will have been upgraded, are welcome.”
“It is disappointing, however, that the Government chose to exempt housebuilding’s nutrient pollution from the habitats regulations, rather than seek a holistic reform with developers paying proportionally for their pollution.”
Others have pointed out that the costs of removing nutrients and phosphates would fall on the public purse rather than on housebuilders. Altogether, it is clear the situation has become a bit of a mess.
Hence the need for a non-political organisation to be set up with the mandate and powers to deliver large numbers of new houses across the country, in places where people want to live but without ruining the countryside.
It is likely that housing generally and where new housing is to be built will be a red hot topic during the general election. It is to be hoped that the politicians do not box themselves in by making ridiculous manifesto commitments that are impossible to deliver on.
I suspect the Punch and Judy style of British politics will provide all the evidence necessary to justify the setting up of a housing delivery organisation. Of course if we get such a body, then it might also be accompanied by calls for the Housing Secretary role to be wound up, or for its focus to shift to other parts of its brief, like tackling homelessness or unscrupulous private sector landlords.