For those people who are scrambling to get on the first rung of the property ladder, the dream of home ownership has never seemed so elusive. The national rise in house prices is well documented; something the Government is looking to rectify with initiatives included in the Localism Bill. Whilst I welcome progress on this issue, I do not believe decentralisation to be the only answer to remedying this far reaching problem.
There was a 220% increase in house prices between 1996 and 2009 in my constituency of Watford. This is an astounding increase, of which the crippling recession was only a partial factor. The largest problem has been consistent both prior to and following the recession; a demand for housing which greatly outstrips the supply. It is only an increase in this supply that will ease demand and create greater opportunities for first time buyers.
It is with this in mind that I welcome change. The Localism Bill will liberate our local communities from stifling Labour targets; especially the well-intentioned but misdirected Regional Spatial Strategies. These have patently not worked. New homes are being built at the slowest rate since the war. Watford, like a number of constituencies in the East and South East, is badly in need of housing supply. If development does not come to these regions soon, a whole generation of people may find themselves priced out of the market for years to come.
There is much scope in the Localism Bill for increased development. Allowing each community to look closely at its own needs and to proceed accordingly is admirable. Yet, as someone with over 25 years of experience in the property world, I believe that the Bill fails to address a serious issue with regards to policy on planning.
A YouGov survey commissioned by the New Homes Marketing Board has revealed that more than eight in ten people – 81 per cent – believe Britain needs more housing for sale and rent, especially homes for first-time buyers. But it also shows that far fewer people – just 50 per cent – would welcome more homes of all types in their own immediate neighbourhoods.
Whilst the Localism Bill has great potential to free local communities to decide for themselves about the housing that they need, I think it crucial that we acknowledge that this will also empower those people who are opposed to development, in all its forms. What is going to be done to ensure that new homes are built, in the face of those who will inevitably oppose development?
Sometimes what is needed to meet the needs of the larger community can be stifled by those who – understandably – have their own best interests at heart. This is not simply a hypothetical question. The issue has already arisen in several places around the country. Whilst Regional Spatial Strategies were not successful, evidence of ‘nimbyism’ has already appeared, with their departure still fresh. In Bath, for example, the number of homes to be built around the area has been cut by nearly 50%, under the city’s draft Core Strategy.
Previous targets proposed by the South West Regional Assembly envisaged over 21,000 homes over the next twenty years but this will now be cut to 11,000. A similar situation has also been recorded in Worcester. Labour’s Regional Spatial Strategies have meant that little has been built, but I am concerned that in the large absence of any centralisation, nothing will be built at all. I support measures to progress on from a failing policy, but I believe that measures must be introduced to ensure that our own strategy is a success. We must be careful that ‘localism’ does not become a platform for disaffected people to block change at any angle.
It is my belief that some simple considerations will do much to ensure this.
Firstly, I believe it to be crucial that P PS3 – which preserves the obligation of Local Planning Authorities to maintain a five year housing land supply – stays intact. Whilst this process is made cumbersome by the lack of a nationally accepted guidance on the method of calculating land supply, it will ensure that an impartial intermediary still exists.
I would suggest that the Government convene an advisory committee, drawn from leading Planning consultants, Inspectors and Chief Planning Officers, to draw up a suggested standard methodology for calculating land supply figures. This will not be a return to the over centralised approach from the past, but will be a sensible way to ensure that when local councils make decisions, they are making informed ones.
It is also very clear that there must be a presumption in favour of sustainable development included in this Bill going forward. This will mean that if the local community has not drawn up its own plan for development, that alternative local, private enterprise can bring forward an alternative plan. It would ensure that even if the Local Authority felt moved to oppose development due to a chorus of opposition, that plans for new developments would still have the opportunity to progress.
This country is facing crisis in assisting decent, hardworking people to get on the property ladder, as those a generation before them had the opportunity to do. We must build; creating greater supply is the only way to ease this problem, and to make home ownership a realistic ambition once more.