Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former councillor in Suffolk.
“No government since the 1970s has done anything to make a real dent in our housing needs,” says Professor Paul Cheshire of the London School of Economics (LSE). “We need to build a new Milton Keynes.” Which, he admits, means building on the Green Belt, together with ‘a radical overhaul of the planning system,’ making it easier to obtain consent for building.
There is also the question of making redundant land available (at a realistic price) for development, including land owned by the public sector, which is reluctant to relinquish sites for alternative use, from former military bases to vacant NHS property, and empty local authority buildings.
When in government, Labour’s John Prescott decreed that some Victorian terraces in former industrial towns were no longer fit and should be demolished, so residents were moved but regeneration never happened. Some were subsequently revived in creative schemes, whilst enterprising councils are selling individual properties at big discounts to asperational homeowners. But, how many of these terraces are left rotting, and what can be done to bring them back into use?
Across the country, we can all point to sites, both large and small, sitting idle and overgrown, which offer potential; if ownership can’t be traced, then we need legislation to enable them to be acquired. An appropriate discounted sum could be put into a Government Trust for, say, ten years. Should someone come forward to claim the land within that period, they would be paid the original sum plus interest, otherwise the monies would be allocated for more housing within the area.
Last autumn’s Budget pledged £630 million for small sites, but details of eligibility and access are yet to be published. This should be a priority, potentially enabling a revival in small independent builders, and self-build, reducing reliance on a few large companies dominating the industry.
Strong leadership – both local and national – is essential. By providing grants for necessary improvements, the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership’s proactive approach released housing / commercial sites with poor access for development, benefiting the local economy.
Given these challenges, it’s welcome that ‘Housing’ was added to Sajid Javid’s title, with Dominic Raab appointed Minister of State, to focus on finding a way to deliver the 300,000 new homes the Government promised for each year by 2020.
With the clock ticking, £44 billion was allocated in the Budget, with little indication as to how it will be spent. Given the sclerotic planning system, we’ll be lucky to see consents and the ensuing red tape sorted, to meet the target within the next two years! All too frequently, it takes at least two years – and often a great deal longer – for any developer to get on site after first applying for consent (which usually follows several months of preliminary discussions with the planners). It’s also worth remembering that the significant (Section 106) demands made on developers adds millions to the costs of schemes – which, in turn, are added to new home prices. Some ‘contributions’ (for health, education and off-site infrastructure) which the various agencies pocket, need reviewing.
This is something Sir Oliver Letwin should look into as chairman of consultations on planning reform – and the gap between consent and delivery. Hopefully someone will also make him aware of the frustrations caused when sensitive applications, opposed by residents, are black-listed by councillors, especially in the run-up to local elections, causing further delays and appeals, increasing costs on all sides, in the event of refusals (contrary to officer recommendations).
And what about infrastructure? The Budget backed the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway, and the 100,000 new homes along its corridor, creating an arc embracing Milton Keynes, Bedford and Northampton, which the National Infrastructure Commission suggests should also be the focus of new roads. Promises of five new garden towns and 15 ‘garden villages’ are yet to be realised.
Meeting targets requires a skilled workforce but, last autumn, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) revealed that the skills shortage is the biggest obstacle to increasing new homes numbers, worse than the delays in planning and red tape. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills says that the construction industry needs to recruit 700,000 more workers just to cover those who are retiring – and that’s without any impact Brexit will have on retaining the excellent European workers to be found on any large building site.
In his Budget, the Chancellor announced £76 million for ‘retraining adults to work in the digital and construction sectors, in a new partnership with business and unions’. But there was no mention of how this is to be achieved, and the Construction Industry Training Board appears to be in trouble, threatening to close its West Norfolk centre, with the loss of hundreds of jobs. A new Chairman is sought to re-energise the organisation, and hopefully to review the various levies applied to developers for training, so finance is concentrated on delivery, rather than being what most see as another ‘penalty charge’, inevitably added to the purchase price of new homes.
Help to Buy is undoubtedly a success, helping 245,000 purchasers with loans of up to 40 per cent on new builds since 2013, but Countrywide estate agents note that the hotspots are mainly in the Midlands and North. “It gave developers confidence to invest in land,” according to the Chief Executive of Carlisle-based Story Homes, “it’s definitely helped the industry to increase output.”
Consequently, with London and the South East suffering from the highest price rises, it is surely time to concentrate more effort on creating more good jobs in cheaper locations beyond the M25, which would also benefit the environment. However, fast broadband is an absolute essential, enabling homeworking and the conversion of redundant rural buildings into homes and business units.
Another issue is the number of older people living lonely lives in their family homes, both private and council-owned; there needs to be a policy to enable them to downsize to more suitable properties, including bungalows. The planning system should allow families to extend their homes, convert garages, or add a prefabricated structure to their gardens to house an elderly, or disabled, relative, perhaps granting temporary consent for a set period when an application would otherwise be contrary to policy. This would also reduce the burden on social services.
Whilst social housing is essential, it should be tailored to local need, with greater flexibility when designating hundreds of new units for the different scales of rent, shared ownership, or purchase. It is simply unfair to fill new blocks with the unemployed from East London, increasing pressure on all public services, as happened on a major scheme in Ipswich, when more young local residents would have loved the opportunity to purchase through Help to Buy.
Given the complexity, it is hardly surprising that housing is regarded as a poisoned chalice for any minister, but Dominic Raab appears to have the energy and commitment to develop a long term plan, rather than merely seek short term solutions. We need to see a joined-up strategy, including jobs and infrastructure, to improve people’s lives and aspirations.