Cllr John Moss is a councillor in Waltham Forest.
There is a housing crisis which the Conservative Manifesto must focus on.
That crisis is mostly, but not entirely, restricted to regions with high employment levels and higher pay, where, for those with lower paid jobs and especially first time buyers, the prices make buying – and increasingly, renting – unaffordable. So, one very important thing to do is to keep pushing investment which will attract jobs to those regions with fewer jobs and fewer higher-paid jobs. Reversing HS2 so it links Scottish and Northern English cities, rather than turning Birmingham. Manchester and Leeds into London commuter towns, would be a very strong step in the right direction.
But that will not address the existing crisis in those higher cost regions. The answer there is to do everything possible. So, unlike the repeated claims of some magic “X” being “The Solution to the Housing Crisis”, we should accept that we need to do everything, to some extent, to address this.
Yes, that means, where appropriate, building on Green Belt, but also on greenfield and brownfield sites. Also building new suburbs, new villages and whole new towns. And redeveloping 1950s/’60s/’70s low-density / high-rise urban estates or in-filling them, or creating new floors above existing blocks, or extending existing homes upwards or outwards. It also means looking seriously at the standards which drive up the cost of homes like minimum areas, minimum private amenity space, minimum floor to ceiling heights, level access to every floor etc.
But to do this with public support, we really do need to tackle the planning system. Plan-making is remote and does not engage the public. The first time most people know a development is happening is when the piling rig arrives. How did the Council allow a building that big? Well, it’s compliant with the Local Plan. What Local Plan? If they do know about a development proposal, they’re one of the small number of people the Council grudgingly consulted.
So a simple ask is that all planning applications be advertised on the site with a large sign board (not the ubiquitous A4 punched pocket taped to a lamppost like a missing cat notice). Preferably A1 in size with a 50mm red border and the words “DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL” in 75mm high red letter across the top. Then, to encourage Councils to consult more widely, allow residents to appeal a decision to grant consent if ten per cent of those consulted ask for the decision to be reviewed.
If there is an appetite for more fundamental reform, then embrace the enthusiasm for Neighbourhood Plans unleashed after the passing of the 2011 Localism Act. Scrap Local Plans (replace with annual statements of five year goals for housing / business / infrastructure etc approved at Full Council meetings). Then spend the money saved on producing individual site development briefs in consultation with local residents and businesses, which go to the local Planning Committee for adoption.
Set out in those briefs the design parameters that will apply, the level and type of affordable housing and the social infrastructure contributions that will be required. If compliant, the developers can go straight to Planning Committee for approval. If not, then they should be asked to repeat the consultation done by the Council in preparing the brief. Finally, those wishing to have their sites designated for future development should pay for those briefs to be produced.
We should also subtly change our Right to Buy policy. We should not force it on Housing Associations. But if they don’t offer it voluntarily, then they should pay one per cent interest on the grant money that has been advanced to them in the past. There should also be no compensation for HAs selling stock under Right to Buy – there really is no need for this. Most homes cost far less than they would be sold for, even with a full discount.
Speaking of discounts, the maximum cash discount should be removed. Residents should get a sensible amount after a sensible time, which should then grow to a maximum percentage, but that should apply to the whole value. We should also drop the nonsense that is “one-for-one” replacement. Any home sold is occupied, any one built is empty and available for a new tenant to occupy. Even if we had to sell four homes to build one new one, that would be a net addition of one home.
It would also help Councils to build if they could use more of the Right to Buy cash they have received in support of new builds, rather than having an arbitrary 33 per cent cap on this funding. Perhaps a system where schemes requiring higher contributions were signed off at the Department for Communities and Local Government might be a way to get councils building, rather than sitting on cash for three years then giving it back to the Government, with interest?