Brandon Lewis MP is the Minister of State for Communities and Local Government and Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth.
Albert Einstein once said that we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. He ranks fairly high in the league table of history’s problem solvers – and in 2010 we adopted his philosophy to fix the broken housing market we inherited from the previous Labour administration.
We faced historically low and deteriorating levels of buying, lending and building. Swift action was required. So we started by tackling the deficit to keep interest rates low and prioritised funding for housebuilding.
But it was clear that to really solve these problems we needed a new level of thinking, which challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of top-down bureaucratic control. That new principle was localism: ensuring that local authorities, and local people, have more control over the delivery of new homes in their area.
We believe that councils know their areas better than Whitehall does, and are best-placed to make decisions about their planning and housing needs. Four years later, the performance of the housing market shows our instincts were right.
Over 700,000 new homes have been delivered since 2010, planning decisions are being made faster, and in the year to June councils gave planning permissions for 230,000 homes, the equivalent of 630 homes a day. The number of empty homes is at a 10-year low, and four out of five councils have published a Local Plan, compared to less than a third when we came to power. Neighbourhood planning is capturing the imagination of communities across the country because they know, for the first time, that these plans have real weight.
Over 1,200 communities are now preparing a neighbourhood plan, and more are joining them every week. Twenty-nine plans – backed by a democratic mandate – are now in force, covering over 5.2 million people. It’s clear that when given the opportunity, people have a real hunger and commitment to use their local knowledge to make decisions that affect their area. The result is growing public support for new housing, which rose from 28 per cent in 2010 to 47 per cent by 2013.
Against this backdrop, we ensured that Government funding achieves more for ever single taxpayer pound. Our Affordable Housing Programme is levering in billions of private investment, and building new homes with half the grant of Labour’s bureaucratic programmes. This quiet revolution is being matched by investment in new private rented housing and last week we launched Treasury-backed guarantees that will encourage a broader range of institutional investors in the sector.
Housebuilding is indisputably good for economic growth. It provides jobs for young people, and is a great economic multiplier. Most importantly, it meets the desires of millions of Britons who want to take their first step on the housing ladder.
These are aspirations we want to support, and today the Prime Minister has announced a scheme that will create thousands of new homeowners and get the country building. The Starter Homes programme will build up to 100,000 low-cost, high-quality homes over the next five years, all on brownfield sites that were not were not previously earmarked for development, so we can further protect the Green Belt.
These homes will have a minimum 20 per cent discount off market price, and be available for first time buyers under 40. Developers and councils from across the country have signed up, and are starting to identify suitable sites in their area. Starter Homes will add to the 180,000 new homeowners who have already bought or reserved a property through one of our Government-backed schemes. No doubt the naysayers will trot out today with a catalogue of reasons why this policy won’t work. The same way they did when we revitalised Right to Buy and introduced Help to Buy.
These self-proclaimed experts insisted that our policies would destroy social housing and fail to boost supply, but they have been proved wrong. Under this Government spiring tenants and homeowners have been voting with their feet, and construction has increased. Councils are building more homes than they have for 23 years, and in its first year Help to Buy prompted the sharpest increase in private housebuilding for 40 years.
I have no doubt the critics will be left confounded again, as another of their long-cherished orthodoxies crumbles away in the face of innovation. Unlike the last Labour Government, we no longer dictate housing strategy from Whitehall. That’s what Einstein would call the “level of thinking” that got us into this dreadful mess in the first place.
Instead we have put councils in control, used our fiscal credibility to encourage investment and nudged the housing market in the right direction. Great progress has been made and there is more to do. The best way to ensure that good work continues is to vote Conservative in May 2015.