These days, politics is a gloomy business.
Politicians talk of endless austerity and squeezed middles. The general public
despair of the main parties. Unfortunately, this pessimism is often justified.
Consider housing. The low level of housing (last year we started construction
of just 100,000 homes) drives up prices and means that the average age of the
first time buyer is now 38. Home ownership is sliding alarmingly, as Thatcher’s
dream of a property-owning democracy crumbles. Despite wishful thinking, net migration
accounts for only 75,000 homes out of a widely accepted minimum of 250,000 a
year just to stand still. We need solutions.
But the debate in the last round of planning reform
was bleak. One side hurled abuse about desecrating England’s green and pleasant
land. The other talked of selfish and nihilistic NIMBYs.
Those arguing for more homes point out that we have
‘developed’ only 9% of England. The share of England ‘concreted over’ is just
2.4%. Even 100,000 more homes more a year on green field sites builds on an
extra 0.004% of England a year. Surely this is worth doing to avert a collapse
in family life as even renting family homes becomes unaffordable?
But the CPRE and others know that people are
rightly afraid of new homes. Local people feel relatively powerless about the
quality and location of new homes in their area. They fear the soulless and
unattractive boxy housing estates that go up around our towns and villages.
They hear talk of fighting the NIMBYs to boost GDP figures. Such language
scares people who worked hard to buy a nice house in a nice area, and fear the
Treasury’s bean-counters will trash their local community.
But there are solutions that should be acceptable
to the majority on both sides. In many countries and places with population
densities similar to England a majority of new homes are custom designed or
‘self built’. Individually designed and attractive new homes are much more
common. Unsurprisingly, new homes are much less bitterly contested.
Indeed, using the neighbourhood plan mechanism this
government has successfully created, we could sweep away pointless regulation
in favour of local people’s discretion. A key issue in planning is that most of
England’s more beautiful housing is literally illegal to build. Mews housing
falls foul of rules on being overlooked. If you have more than four floors in a
beautiful townhouse you need a lift. Thatched cottages are too low density and
not zero carbon standard. This is all madness.
After the 1st April an army of planning
inspectors will pave the way for waves of speculative development across the
South of England. This is not just the alarmism of the CPRE but the view of
independent property consultants. This approach was tried and totally failed both
politically and practically in the 1980s. The number of new homes rose by just
a third in a housing boom. It forced a rare u-turn from a Thatcher
Instead of repeating past failures another approach
should be taken. Councils failing to build should have to procure land for
self-build development for local people, particularly those in nearby suburbs
or villages. Let local people decide what rules should govern what new homes
should look like instead of the current red tape. Create a new waiting list for
this land and a huge new pressure group for more and better quality development
springs into existence. Make this about bringing families together, and let
people pass land on to their children or close family.
This is in some ways a return to the best of the
past. Before 1947 self-build housing was much more common. From village worker
cottages to Bath Royal Crescent, self-build homes were how much of our most
attractive homes were created. Our current system is the result of the 1945 dream
of every home planned, built and owned by the council. Unsurprisingly, it has
turned out to be a nightmare.
Too radical, perhaps? There is a type of civil
servant who even as the ship sinks argues we need more testing to see if lifeboats
are a good idea. Did I mention this system of forcing through housing by
planning inspectors meant housing barely rose 33% before Thatcher backed down?
Ukip will have a field day if the current plans go through. The Coalition is
running out of time to boost growth, fix the housing crisis and avert a crisis
in the shires and back benches. Self-build homes for local people, and
controlled by local people, is a solution to all three. And it could be as big
a political winner and boost to home ownership for the Tories now as Right to
Buy was in the 1980s.
P.S. Here's an infographic to explain our proposals: