Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Supply of housing

So Mrs May has gone back on Mr Cameron's revival of Mrs Thatcher's promise of a property-owning democracy. Still her housing minister claims that Conservative government has a good record for house building, flying in the face of the obvious point that (apart from provision of armed forces' quarters long ago) central government does not build houses. Time for some common sense from Lord Greaves. These are quotations from his speech during the debate on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill last month (the emphasis is mine):

I say not for the first time in your Lordships’ House that in my view the planning system in this country is bust in many respects. However, it is not bust in the way that housebuilders and the Government think. I too refer to the two main reasons the Government have put forward for the Bill—namely, to help identify and free up more land on which to build homes and to speed up the delivery of new homes. If we are talking about neighbourhood planning, building new homes is an important part of that but it does not define neighbourhood planning in any way whatever. The noble Baroness said that it is all about vision and that the vision is about far more than simply building homes; rather, it is about the whole future of communities. We should not allow a single-minded objective of building houses in the Bill to make us lose sight of that. It is not what neighbourhood planning was intended to achieve; it is part of it.

The planning system is broken because it often gets the blame for low housing numbers. Government after Government seek quick fixes by tinkering with the planning system whereas what we really need to look at is the supply of new houses and why people are not building them. There are clearly some instances where people would like to build but say they cannot do so because of bureaucratic obstruction by the planning authority. However, that is not the main reason why the number of new houses being built in this country is not high enough. No doubt we will discuss that as the Bill goes through. As the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Spalding, said, one of the major reasons for that situation is the refusal of successive Governments—I would say the stubborn refusal—to allow local authorities to borrow money against their assets in order to build new houses. It is just extraordinary that we cannot do this.

If the planning system is to blame for this or that or is not working properly, the real problem, as I have said before, lies not with development control—or development management, as we now have to call it—but with the plan-making system. I believe that system is overbureaucratic, overexpensive and sclerotic in many ways. If we go back over the history of this we will see that there have always been local plans of some sort since planning was first invented. Some of us remember the old town maps. However, modern plan-making started with the local government reorganisation of 1974, when, in a two-tier area such as mine, we had county structure plans and district local plans all set out under a development plan scheme. Originally, these were fairly simple affairs. However, they have become more and more complicated as time has gone on, and more and more subject to central government interference and the attempt to micromanage what happens locally.

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