HOUSING: THINK OF A NUMBER, DOUBLE IT…

7 March 2015


A general election is coming and the parties are showing an interest in housing that has been wholly absent for three decades. They are falling over themselves to declare how many more houses will be built if they win power than if their rivals win. Parties whose previous approach was more or less, Let them sleep in tents, and who slept comfortably in beds in houses at night while millions didn’t, now ply us with their genuine, deeply-felt concern, newly discovered like stout Cortez’s Pacific.

Look in the Daily Telegraph here for a brief guide to the parties’ policies and numbers. I shall focus on the two main parties of government, Labour and the Conservatives. One of them will be in government after the election.

Labour

The Labour party, the party of progress and reform, with an appalling, indefensible record of indifference to people’s need for housing and with scandalously low numbers built during its thirteen years in office, says there will eventually be 200 000 a year of all sorts of new houses built if it wins power. Of course the party and government won’t be building any; a Labour government would merely create the conditions for others to do the work.

I am not convinced. The Labour plan, unambitious in numbers about both market and affordable homes, nods towards the funds necessary for this but it lacks sufficient worked through details for me to believe that it is anything other than the hasty combination of guilt and imminent election. I should be happy to be very wrong.

Conservatives

Along come the Tories who are the chief authors of our housing shortages: from 1980 they sold off public housing for good and bad reasons and disastrously prevented a replacement program so that the public stock of housing diminished; the numbers of market houses built also fell. It was a signal and stupid failure by Tory ideologues and we live with the consequences today.

Alas, these Bourbons appear to have learned nothing. Their election bait is 200 000 starter homes for purchase: see the part in the Labour comment above about the government itself not building any. The details are sketchy – a feature of all the parties’ plans – but it appears that to fund a 20 percent discount for the first-time buyers purchasers of each home the Tories will remove from the developer any requirement for a proportion of the homes built to be affordable or to pay money to the council in lieu of his building them (and they will remove infrastructure requirements too). This will have sure effect: a reduction in the number of affordable homes for rent that are built. Additionally, small developments will be exempt from the requirement for a proportion to be affordable, another policy which will reduce the number of affordables built. The current Tory Libdem one-for-one replacement program is turning out to be one-for-ten or-so thus also reducing the public stock of affordable houses for rent.

Centre v local

The major need now is for affordable homes to rent; the purchase of ‘affordable’ homes is now out of reach of most on housing waiting lists. Neither Labour nor Tories have faced up to this.

Nor have they resolved the central difficulty of housing policy. The government proposes, the planning committee disposes. Even if the developers draw up schemes and find the funds and the construction industry can find the labour and materials, the parties’ house building targets can only succeed if the plans are passed, the site and house tenures agreed. At present the government in effect leans on councils and most plans are passed but enough are not to throw doubt on aims to double the current annual number of houses of all sorts built. New county (local) and parish (neighbourhood) plans are likely to restrict building in direct challenge to the parties’ aims. In many places, including Cornwall, localism doesn’t like more than a handful of new houses for locals and even jibs at current inadequate totals. There is a chasm between the parties’ aims and local aims.

The question is then, Who gets to decide whether new houses are built? The government or the local councillors with local electors breathing down their necks? And which locals: do the comfortably housed locals drown out the voices of those locals looking for an affordable house?

Housing and localism

I discussed some of the problems with localism and housing three years ago in the post The trouble with localism. I think some points are worth repeating.

<<The other [problem with localism] is the likelihood that the locality wherever it is will consult its own immediate interests, or perhaps rather the interests of the noisiest with the sharpest elbows, and disregard the wider interests of the community and country or even the interests of quieter, powerless people in the locality. Yet those wider localities will be expected to pay the bill for local decisions…

I point out again that localism might mean very few affordable houses get built anywhere if locals decide. Read this report [Localism is making housing shortage worse, warns new report, Guardian 24 June 2011].

Two years ago, during a debate in the Commons on 3 June 2009 about the relationship and distribution of powers between central and regional and local government, Peter Soulsby, then Labour MP for Leicester South, made a telling point which shattered the simplisticism of a hymn to localism. The debate begins at column 352 and I urge you to read it.

Soulsby argued reasonably that, while subsidiarity, the devolution to the local level of as much as possible, mattered, there was a tendency for local councils to reject housing plans in their areas on nimby grounds (column 357). This meant that a higher authority — in his view regional — had to tell them they must provide the housing. He added, absolutely rightly I think, that that the voices of local people seeking their first house and affordable housing ‘are far too easily drowned out by those who wish to oppose housing development in certain areas’ (column 362). Central government had to overcome the local tendency to say no by setting housing targets ‘to reflect the needs of people throughout the country.’

I think Soulsby demonstrated that localism has its limits and drawbacks.

Andrew George, Libdem MP for St Ives, who initiated the debate, endeavoured to reconcile the desire to see local powers with the reality of how such powers could be used to frustrate affordable housing. He agreed that a local council failing to meet local demand for affordable housing should be subjected to ‘pressure’ from central government, whatever ‘pressure’ means (column 357).

What is interesting in all this is that fairly uncritical and simplistic claims for more powers for local decision-making by local councils or local people are confronted by two egregious examples of the likely failure of localism, the provision of affordable housing and gipsy sites. I think outside direction by central or regional government is needed to secure desired ends and those ends might well not be what many local people wanted. Additionally, localism turns out to be, well, not quite as local as people thought it would be.>>

Previous posts
Numerous posts on housing and affordable housing can be found through the blog search box. Similarly for localism.


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