Peter Walker retired as Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police in 2003. He now owns SuperSkills, a Construction Training Business in Thirsk.
I’ll start by declaring an interest. As the owner of a construction training business, it is obvious I support growth in the construction sector. But anyone with half a brain should know we have a problem with housing supply in the UK – demand has outstripped supply for all my adult life and the situation is getting worse, not better.
I also have the perspective that comes from living most of my life in villages and that’s why I read Harry Phibbs’ article with interest. I agree with him about the Government’s proposals for more rural housing – they are indeed welcome. Yet it seems to me there is a lack of understanding of the nature of village communities in rural areas which still needs addressing.
Four of the 50,000 villages to which Harry refers are to south of Bedale, joined by a single “B” road. They each have the same thing in common – they are surrounded by large businesses. Here in the country, we call them “farms”. Every so often, one of the farmers will add a crop of houses to their usual mix of arable and dairy activity, so the demand for housing is sustained.
In Burneston, where I live, there are usually at least half a dozen houses for sale. Presently, they range in price from £1.75m (rather grand), to £169,000 (three bedroom terrace). Most – especially detached houses – stay on the market for quite some time.
In the nineteen years I’ve lived here, twenty houses have been built. There is a brownfield site with planning consent and a current application in place for a greenfield site (which is receiving significant opposition because the former is still undeveloped).
Burneston is a lovely village to live in – not “chocolate box” lovely, more a “practical, Yorkshire” place. We have a primary school, church, pub and shop. No graffiti (actually no crime at all to speak of). No litter. No noisy youths. People know each other. It is a true community and eminently sustainable.
However, the Broadband has received all the upgrading it’s going to get and still people in Lithuania get speeds three times faster. There is a bus service – on a Thursday you can go to Ripon and back. The drains struggle to cope with heavy rain.
So it might be understandable that I smiled when Harry described the benefit of “an extra hundred beautiful cottages” or the merits of barn conversions (most locally are made of aluminium) to villages, as I thought of Exelby, Burneston, Carthorpe and Kirklington. The infrastructure to support that level of development simply does not exist – even if the farm owners wanted to forgo some of their production capacity to provide the land. If they were built, would people want to buy or live in them?
I thoroughly agree with Harry that we need to think small as well as big when it comes to housing. It’s great to see Liz Truss joining George Osborne in promoting steps to alleviate rural housing demand. But most importantly, we need to start thinking strategically, across the whole of Government, because it’s not just the planning laws that need sorting out.
We have a chronic shortage of skilled construction workers. As a result, many have come in from other EU nations to help build the houses we need. The problem is, they also need housing. I’m probably not alone in seeing the illogicality here. Get Nicky Morgan involved to get schools to value trade skills as well as academic subjects.
Construction is a “self-employed” sector. You can’t be an Apprentice if you are self-employed. This is a major inhibitor to apprenticeship training. It’s been sorted out for Sea Fishing (also a self-employed sector). Sajid Javid has a part to play.
New house builds attract VAT relief. Home extensions for additional bedrooms don’t. Over to George Osborne.
So it goes on. For every issue causing problems in housing supply, there will be a solution. Most won’t cost much, if anything. However, looking at them in isolation, regardless of scale, has us building 100,000 houses LESS than we need, every year. Just think of that.
There is no doubt. To solve the housing shortage, we need to coordinate our approach. We need more Ministers working together, unpicking the problems, delivering the solutions. We need a national housing strategy.