Alex Morton is Research Director for Housing, Planning and Urban Policy at Policy Exchange.
Housing is one of the most important issues facing the country. According to the last three months of YouGov polling, housing was issue number five for voters. It beat education and crime, the environment and many other areas with a Secretary of State specifically for them. And not only is the total amount and quality of housing important in itself, it is key in crucial political debates on everything from the economy to our quality of life.
Yet as of last week, the Minister for Housing will not even be a Minister of State. Instead housing is the lowest rung on the Ministerial ladder, a Parliamentary Under Secretary. Perhaps this apparent demotion is unimportant. After all results, not titles, matter. But as Isabel Hardman pointed out in the Telegraph on Friday, the levels of house-building in England are at record lows, with new starts barely totalling 100,000. This is despite housing costs being very high and way above the cost of construction, which should mean housing numbers are expanding.
Even more depressing is that this all takes place against a backdrop of rumbling disquiet as local authorities are forced to approve new housing against their wishes. We have ended up with a situation where very few homes are being built and where they are or are planned, new developments are causing political headaches for councillors and MPs. UKIP candidates are licking their lips, using by-elections to stir up distrust in planning housing projects and boost their vote.
The Government has made some positive moves to address the shortage problem and lack of local community involvement in new development, Nick Boles and Greg Clark, the present and past Planning Ministers, have made it easier to convert underused or vacant offices and shops into homes. Neighbourhood Plans have been introduced which give local people a greater say (albeit if they jump through a lot of hoops). Some planning gain can go to projects that local people select, not the local authority. But housing policy as a whole cannot be seen as a success.
It is often unpleasant to be proved right. Maximum pain for minimal gain is what our 2011 Cities for Growth report predicted would be the result of the botched planning reforms that took place early in this parliament. But the good news is that there are still areas that there could be movement on before 2015, as follows:
Custom-Build Housing. This morning, the Communities Secretary will be giving a short speech about the Government’s plans to increase custom-build housing. In much of Europe this delivers a majority of new homes. In the UK, allowing people to build their own homes would increase competition and quality, as well as creating a pressure group against the petty regulation that often controls house building. What has come out of Government so far has been minimal changes with maximum fanfare, and so the numbers have yet to really increase.
Ending expensive social tenancies. The much-emphasised welfare cap saves a total of just £110 million a year. Yet each year vacant social housing worth roughly £4.5 billion is re-let to new tenants – 45 times as much. Ending this injustice and recycling the receipts would permit the greatest social housing programme since the 1970s. It would also present a strategic challenge to Labour – more new good quality social homes, or a few expensive ones?
Trying to treat those near new homes fairly. The madness of the current planning system is illustrated with the fact that losing a view cannot be taken into account (when most people think it is crucial). The current system forces through new housing on specific sites. It was not created by Boles, but is inherent to the system. However, Ministers should express regret at this, and promise that while councils have to be sensible for the next few years, the system will be revisited after the next election. Those who lose views should be compensated. It is simply not fair or respectful of property rights to do anything else.
Creating new powers to help quality. The wider issue of quality urgently needs revision. The idea that a set of onerous building regulations and planning issues can create beautiful housing has been tried to death in the past few decades. Instead, local people should be able to create pattern books and design guides, or approve developers’ pattern books and design guides, with faster planning permission for houses that fulfil these criteria. This would further encourage neighbourhood plans and local engagement. This would help reduce tension around new homes.
Ensuring Help-to-Buy has an exit strategy. Help-to-Buy cannot be stopped. But it would be sensible if the Government tried to set out, as soon as possible, an exit strategy that minimises the risk of a cliff edge in 2017, and averts a real danger of a temporary programme becoming a long term prop.
Whoever is elected will have to return to the issue of housing and planning after 2015. What are needed between now and then are sensible policies that help smooth the way for further reform. The question is not whether or not something useful can be done on housing in the next 18 months. The question is whether or not the Government wants to.