One of the great problems with the current government is that they have cosied up to too many lobbyists who have made hefty donations to their party. That has skewed policy making. The interests of ordinary people don’t seem to matter as much as the interests of those who have privileged access to decision-makers.
Developers rarely care about affordable housing
The issue can be seen in particularly acute focus in planning. With rental costs through the roof and mortgages costing a fortune the country is crying out for affordable housing that meets the needs of those who just want a reasonable, decent home. What it is getting instead is executive homes being built on green land which fail to meet local needs.
In attractive areas of Yorkshire like the Dales or Whitby, housing has been constructed that is completely unaffordable on a local salary and many of the properties have been sold as second homes or gone straight out on Airbnb. Local green spaces are getting gobbled up without any impact on the local housing crisis and few of the new properties get occupied by people with children who attend local schools and might help keep them open.
In parts of Yorkshire that the developers are less interested in, solid well-built homes are crumbling with neglect and leaking heat. Brownfield sites are sitting undeveloped for decades because there is little or no financial incentive to develop the difficult places and every incentive to use a farming field in the suburbs.
At the heart of the policy mistakes that have driven the housing crisis are two things. One is a blind spot about social housing. The Conservative government insists that any council house that a local authority owns can be bought by the resident at such a heavy discount that the local council can’t afford to replace it. To make things even worse, a certain amount of Right to Buy receipts are diverted away from social housing. That stops councils from building social housing.
The other huge problem is the presumption in favour of development which lobbyists got inserted into the heart of planning policy shortly after the Conservatives came to power. To be accurate, this policy is actually described in the National Planning Policy Framework as a presumption in favour of sustainable development.
It is a strange form of sustainability which has allowed hundreds of thousands of new homes to go up without solar panels, electric vehicle charging points, or heat exchange units. Technologically it is now very easy to construct a building that generates more power than its users are likely to consume. Planning policy has not enabled local authorities to insist on that happening.
The word ‘sustainable’ was inserted into the policy as a piece of decoration. It was cynical spin that was designed to confuse. The actual policy was to force high targets onto local authorities and to deny them any real power to insist that what is built in their local area meets real local needs.
Michael Gove: an unlikely hero?
Interestingly, some of that is beginning to change as some Conservatives are starting to listen to constituents who are furious that their previously attractive community has been swamped by new housing estates that don’t meet local needs. The pounding the Conservatives took from the Green Party and from the Liberal Democrats in rural seats in the recent local elections was heavily driven by frustrations over that.
So, Michael Gove has started backing away from central government insisting on over-heavy house-building targets and started asking for better quality in what is developed. Some in his own party are furious with him and the well-financed lobbyists employed by the developers will be very determined to undermine any attempts to put a stop to the gravy train they have been on since 2010.
Labour backing the wrong side?
Curiously Keir Starmer has recently taken up a position on this that seems to back developers rather than local communities. When a politician announces that they intend to back the builders and not the blockers it is wise to be very cautious indeed.
It is, of course, important that there are enough new homes built to meet the real needs of local communities. It is equally important that decisions of local communities about what those needs are and how they should be made are not over-ridden by central government insisting on crude target setting that pays little respect for real local needs.
Young people won’t be helped to resolve their housing problems by building large executive homes on the green belt. What is needed is a real focus on building new social housing, a major programme of retrofit and improvement of both the housing stock and the local infrastructure in inner city areas, and reform of the laws that oversee the relationships between landlord and tenant.
Labour’s housing policy risks being derailed
There are some good ideas along these lines in Labour’s overall approach but those ideas risk being drowned out if their leader insists on believing that the key problem is developers being too heavily controlled and needing to be set free. All the experience of the last decade or so is that if developers are not kept firmly within limits, then what gets built is highly profitable but not necessarily very useful to those looking for a home. The need is to find ways of making building the right things profitable and challenging developers to do the difficult work and to creatively utilize pre-used land.
If Starmer goes into power convinced that the need is to back the builders not the blockers we risk another ten years of failed policy choices. It will be interesting to see how many of his own members are comfortable with his latest rhetoric. It appears to align rather too closely with the views of the building industry’s most expensive lobbyists.