Ed Miliband pops up on a new housing development in Milton Keynes to tell us there is a housing crisis. He didn’t mention that house prices tripled between 1998 and 2007, when housebuilding hit an all-time low and Labour were in government.
Nevertheless, something must be done. His Big Idea is to reserve a proportion of new homes for first time buyers living ‘locally’ for two months. This will have no impact whatsoever because it is price which curtails first time buyers, which is why the Prime Minister pledged to build 100,000 starter homes at 20 per cent below market rate for the under 40’s, and to help renters save for a deposit.
It is also why the Chairman of Redrow hailed the Help to Buy Scheme as a ‘phenomenal success’ at a recent What House? conference in Wolverhampton.
Yet, at this same conference, Shadow Housing Minister, Emma Reynolds, said Labour would reduce the threshold for this programme.
Reiterating Labour’s commitment to making housing a priority, delivering 200,000 units each year (by 2020) and with a Help to Build government guarantee for small builders, she will also demand that local authorities have land availability policies and a ‘common methodology for identifying housing need’, providing clear guidelines on how to evaluate that need.
Whilst freely plagiarising long-published Conservative policies, she is, however, right about identifying housing need. Local authorities simply don’t have housing strategies. By this I mean evidence of current housing stock (including council-owned, housing associations, and private, as well as sheltered and care homes) and their demographic, linked to economic development (i.e. inward investment/job creation), immigration, and healthcare.
More people than ever before are living alone, either through choice, relationship breakdown or widowhood, and, whatever your views on immigration, it impacted on housing demand. A shortage of suitable housing in the right locations is crippling ‘downsizing’, which, in turn, reduces opportunities for families to upsize (contributing to the shortage at first time buyer level).
Without this information, it is impossible to target what is needed where. Inevitably, private developers will build where they see demand, but this doesn’t always match greatest need – especially when it comes to ‘affordable housing’.
It’s predicted that 60 per cent of future housing growth will come from the over 65’s, so a good starting point would be to identify the number of council and housing association stock which is under-occupied by that age group (the spare room subsidy cut doesn’t apply). Not with a view to forcing older people to move, but to see whether these properties meet their current and future needs and if residents would like to relocate.
Ealing Borough Council initiated an excellent scheme (started by the Conservatives, but continued by Labour) with Catalyst Housing and the developer, St. George. Linked to financial incentives, it released the equivalent of about 250 bedrooms in council-owned family houses by working with ‘active elderly’ tenants over 55 to rehouse them with their neighbours in 70 new apartments as part of the luxurious Dickens Yard development, close to all amenities, which has regenerated the whole area.
Although new build is now up to around 114,500 units a year, it will take five to seven years to reach the 200,000 units promised by politicians, because of a shortage of skilled labour and materials, so Labour’s policy of ‘use it or lose it’ for developers’ land banks is an idle threat, although Ms. Reynolds plans to give local authorities ‘better tools’ to tackle unused land.
The legal profession will have a field day.
What we do need is a national skills strategy, employing ex-Forces personnel as Lord Ashcroft suggests in his Veterans’ Transition Review. And perhaps there could be an argument for penalising those developers which don’t employ apprentices.
Despite all attempts by the Government, we still need to address the sclerotic planning process and Section 106 demands which evoked strong criticism of local authorities – and councillors – at the What House? conference: for their lack of vision and competence; too many planning conditions (although some authorities limit them to encourage and support development); a lack of ‘partnership working’ with developers and communities; demand to reduce the number of times planning applications are referred to committee (outline/detailed/agreeing conditions) and a call for more delegated powers, as well as for councillors to be excluded from the process entirely!
As a nine-year veteran of planning committees, I have some sympathy. In Ipswich a prime site for 247 new homes will shortly return to planning committee, a year after its last attempt; I won’t say for ‘approval’ because it has already taken seven years to reach this stage. And this is a Labour administration, Ed.