Dean Godson is Director of Policy Exchange.
We need to build more homes. That’s accepted as fact across the political spectrum, from the Prime Minister down. Bob Seely recently laid down a challenge here on ConservativeHome to think tanks – which Policy Exchange is happy to take on. How do we build the number of new homes we need in the places we need them? London and the South East is the region most in need of new homes, but it’s a question for many other parts of the country, too.
We have been wrestling with this question for sometime: what does a winning housing strategy look like? Last month we published Better Brownfield, setting out how to build 300,000 beautiful homes in London whilst protecting the greenbelt. Yesterday we set out a plan – Building More, Building Beautiful – to overcome the ‘Nimbyism’ that has for too long stopped us building.
As many a Conservative MP will tell you, they recognise the need to build more homes – as do their constituents – but when it comes to new developments in their area, they are nervous.
They are nervous about increased pressure on local infrastructure and public services. But there is something more. A deeper concern that somehow their community will be diminished. Rather than enriching the settlement they call home, many feel that new developments diminish, or even desecrate, their community.
Policy Exchange has spent the last few months trying to understand this challenge. We’ve polled over 5,000 members of the public and conducted several focus groups, including with planners and architects. What we learned is fundamental to unlocking the housing crisis.
Government schemes like Help to Buy and action on Stamp Duty are keeping up demand and trying to broaden ownership to younger people. But on supply, the challenge remains. In response to concerns over infrastructure, from school places to pressures on the local hospital, the Government is devoting more taxpayers’ money. But the concerns over despoilment remain – and so does local opposition. Put simply, people both value beauty and they know we need to build more homes. The solution is to recognise the importance of both feelings.
So what is beauty?
On housing, there is a surprising consensus. As our poll revealed, when given the choice people prefer traditional designs – from Georgian terraces and Edwardian mansion-blocks, to tree-lined streets. Across all socioeconomic groups, a large majority of people agree that newly-built homes and properties should fit in with their surroundings – with support among DEs reaching 79 per cent. Seventy-nine per cent of people support garden cities, and 70 per cent of people support low-rise, traditional, two-storey properties.
Forty-one per cent of people believe the local community should have the most say over how we design new homes and communities– but only three per cent believe they currently do. Thirty-seven per cent of people believe developers currently have the most say – but only eleven per cent think they should.
Given that people’s preferences are so clear, why do we insist on bringing forward designs that jar with them? For all the extra school places and road-widening schemes, if developers propose blocks or units that make local residents grimace as they walk or drive by, support is likely to be limited and objections greater.
So an important message from Policy Exchange’s research for anyone seeking to address the housing crisis is this: take people with you.
The Carrot – To the disruptor the spoils
One challenge is the comparative cost of building beauty. Developers point out that (as a general rule) beauty costs more and many think house prices are already too high – even though 63 per cent of respondents to our poll believe that new homes can be built with good design and style and modern living requirements at the heart of the design process without spending more. What is needed is a change in approach.
A private firm will want to maximise profits. And so prizes will go to the developers who manage to square the circle – profit with beauty and affordability. Our research suggests that the public would be more supportive of new developments if they are more beautiful, giving planners greater confidence to approve such schemes. More units mean more profit, even if the margin on each unit is reduced.
The Stick – Time to lead
The race will be on for developers to get ahead of government. Both the updated National Planning Policy Framework and updated London Plan are due to be published later this year. Politicians, both national and local, know they have to do something about housing. They also want to retain support in their local area. Beauty offers a way forward and if the developers don’t act, then it’s only a matter of time before elected officials do.