After the flash floods in London and the horrible sights of communities getting washed out in Germany, it is perhaps not surprising that the Government intends to (finally?) restrict developers from building houses on land in danger of flooding. The Daily Telegraph reports:
“New powers will also be given to the Housing Secretary to block “inappropriate development” on land threatened by flooding. The Government is introducing the reforms after 866 homes were granted planning permission in 2019/20 despite formal warnings from the Environment Agency (EA) about flood risk.”
But sensible as this is, it is also yet another weight on the scales against the Government’s housebuilding ambitions, and will put more pressure on Robert Jenrick to get things built elsewhere.
In fact, the importance of location is a theme that crops up quite a lot when you talk to Tories about housing. For example Ben Everitt, the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Housing Market and Housing Delivering (henceforth ‘APPG for Housing’), set out his mission statement to me thus:
“We need more homes, in the right places, at the right time, and I don’t really care who builds them or who owns them.”
It seems the old Conservative preoccupation with building a ‘property-owning democracy’ is over, at least amongst a section of the back benches. Instead, Everitt reports that there is little in the way of partisan divisions on the APPG, with the Tories all on board with building more council or Housing Association homes.
What does ‘in the right places’ actually mean, though? A cynical observer might plot its use onto a spectrum of meaning, with ‘don’t build on a floodplain’ at one end and ‘more homes yes, but not here!’ on the other. There is a definite keenness, for example, to tie housebuilding to ‘levelling up’ and, as a result, shift the focus of housebuilding northwards – which has the handy side-effect of reducing pressure (at least in theory) on the southern shire constituencies that return many of these very Tory MPs.
But the case can be put more or less persuasively, and it basically depends on whether one tries to put cart or horse first. Everitt, for example, wants to make sure that areas of the country around freeports and other ‘levelling-up’ initiatives are able to rapidly building new housing to meet need once those projects have generated new demand. This makes more sense than building hundreds of thousands of extra properties in places where housing is already affordable in order to try and drive recovery, as Bob Seely seems to advocate.
What about the South, where the demand is right now? In the first instance, according to Everitt, the priority is speeding up development where communities have already “been through the pain” and planning permission has been granted. This is the popular ‘stop land-banking’ case.
There are two potential problems with this. First, as the Centre for Cities sets out, it is no silver-bullet to getting supply up. Far from being merely a tactic by greedy developers to keep prices up, ‘land banking’ is often simply a side-effect of how long and fraught with danger the planning process is. Over-bidding for permissions is one way of making sure developers have a steady supply of projects.
Second, there is currently a shortage of building materials. Trying to force developers into rapid building via some kind of legal stick would only exacerbate this. (Everitt points out that it isn’t MPs’ job to solve that, which is fair enough, but the Government must nonetheless keep it in mind when regulating the sector.)
If he and the APPG are representative of backbench Conservative thinking on housebuilding, there have definitely been some hopeful developments. There is broad support for planning reform, albeit with more input for communities in ‘growth zones’, and recognition that clever demand-side wheezes without supply-side solutions just “make housing more unaffordable”. It isn’t hard to see why the APPG has apprently found MHCLG willing to listen to their advice.
But the apparently low priority placed on expanding home-ownership is significant. It does not yet seem to be shared by the Government, whose “preferred discounted market tenure”, the First Homes scheme, instead involves a state-maintained discount and sale restrictions on what is otherwise private housing.
Nor ought it to be. Whilst there is certainly a place for council and housing association property in the system, to allow this to become the main way of getting people into their own homes would be to abdicate half the point of planning reform.
Conservatives have a bad habit of neglecting the importance of structural reform. For example, successive education secretaries have allowed the heat to come out of the schools revolution, even though the pandemic spotlit the dividends of Michael Gove’s changes as academy chains fought to open whilst the teaching unions fought to keep schools shut.
Housing is the same. The reason reform of this sector is so important is because of the impact it has on the entire structure of society – and the electoral map of the South East, too. A vast expansion of state tenantry would be no substitute for giving the next generation the opportunity to actually own their own home, as their parents did. It would just be a blueprint for more Brightons and more Canterburys.