Natalie Elphicke is a non-executive director of a leading building society and a published policy writer on housing and housing finance with Policy Exchange and the Centre for Policy Studies. She was the first national director of the new Conservative Policy Forum.
Would you build a new hospital when there were already spare beds? No, you would make sure you used the extra beds first. Would you build a new school when there were already another three planned? No, you would make sure that those three schools were delivered swiftly and assess the capacity in light of those schools. So why would you agree to build one or two or three new towns or “garden cities” without making sure you build out what you have first?
All the more so when the “you” in this case is the public sector, and you are the largest owner of undeveloped housing land in the country. The largest landbanker.
Our cities and towns are cluttered with derelict and unused pockets of land. Our communities are blighted by half built and permissioned land which is not then developed. In the meantime, the housing need persists and local communities are forced to keep granting permission for more homes, more permissioned land, more waste.
There are around 400,000 planning permissions for homes already granted. There is capacity for more than one million homes on old and disused land, perhaps even two million homes. The housebuilding industry itself has enough planning permissions to keep building for the next five years and more. We can meet the historic shortfall of around a million homes over the next decade within our existing and planned for resources.
Do we need new large conurbations? John Prescott thought so. He ordered four new towns in Ashford, Cambridgeshire, London and Milton Keynes. In addition, he ordered a host of huge “hub” developments around the South East. Many of the sites have still not been developed ten years later. At the time the Labour Government admitted to Parliament that necessary transport and water infrastructure to support the new developments had not been sorted out, or planned for in the finances. None-the-less, millions has been spent in land assembly and consultants’ fees. No wonder the South East feels under siege. For more than a decade there has been a free-for-all on planning, with no responsibility taken for non-delivery, waste, or the abject failure to deliver what has been agreed.
It is like agreeing the plans for a new school or hospital, not building it, and then not taking any responsibility when children are in overcrowded classrooms or being thrown out of hospital beds before they are fit to leave. The situation in housing would not be acceptable in any other social infrastructure.
We do not need to permission more land, assemble more land for housing development and take another ten years giving it a fancy label of a garden city or a new town. Labour did that and it did not work. It resulted in less housebuilding during the 13 Labour years than the previous 13 of the Conservative government. The Coalition has delivered more council housing and more affordable housing than it inherited in 2010. Master planning for giant new conurbations could be a distraction from the lower hanging fruit of bringing forward existing planning permissions for building now.
Let’s learn from Labour’s mistakes, use what we have and stop the blight from disused land. Let’s back smaller builders who are interested in building out what the big boys don’t want. Smaller builders have suffered most in the credit crunch. They accounted for around 30 per cent of total supply in 2008 and that has nearly halved to 16 per cent today. Let’s look at schemes like the Taxpayer’s HomeBuild and the Housing ISA to get more capital for development to the smaller builders. Let’s not get carried away with grandiose schemes, which may or may not happen in ten years’ time. Let’s use what we have first, and put more effort into making sure we do all we can do right now.