Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Government should at long last see sense on housing

Lord Greaves speaks with long practical experience as a councillor in authorities which include the deprived and the affluent as well as the middle-class. His analysis damns New Labour as well as the post-Thatcher thinking which continues to dominate the Conservative party.

Year after year the Government say that they want to build more houses. However, they do not succeed; indeed, in recent years the situation has got worse. The philosophy is wrong, the analysis is wrong and the solutions are wrong. They continue to be wrong and things are not going to improve on the basis of present policy.
One real problem common to all Governments is that they are addicted to the idea of one policy fitting all—top-down rules, top-down planning and top-down restrictions. They do not allow local authorities and local people to get on with doing things appropriately in their areas, and it does not work. Then they always blame the planning system. I keep saying in your Lordships’ House that the plan-making part of the planning system is bust, but that is very largely due to the ever-growing plethora of top-down restrictions, top-down instructions and top-down attempted control by central government—something that we are now seeing again. By and large, the blame does not, in my view, lie with the development control system. Local authorities give planning permission for new housing and that new housing simply is not taken up. It is estimated that nearly 700,000 planning permissions have not been carried through.
Then we have council housing. We have a continuing central prejudice against local authorities buying and owning housesHarold Wilson, who followed Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister, used to refer to the 13 wasted Tory years in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, but those were the years when huge numbers of council houses were built. Building all those council houses was one of the greatest improvements made in the last century to the lives of ordinary people in this country. Yet we cannot do it anymore. We might refer to the 13 wasted Labour years we had before 2010, when the building of council houses dried up.
Why is this? Why is there such a prejudice against local authorities centrally? It is accepted that local authorities are the most efficient part of the public sector, and certainly the most democratic part. There is the problem, because democracy results in diversity: people do different things in different areas and solve problems in different ways. The civil servants and their ministerial colleagues at the centre simply do not like that, because it is out of their control.

We learn that one of the early beneficiaries of the government's "Help to Buy" scheme was Mrs Bone, wife of the MP for Wellingborough. The couple have done nothing illegal, but what a condemnation of a scheme which was trumpeted as a help to couples wanting to get on the housing ladder that people earning well above the average family should be best able to take advantage of it!

Sajid Javid has said that the government should borrow money to fund the building of hundreds of thousands of new homes, according to the BBC. It is strange that he should come out with this revelation after a decade of historically-low interest rates, just as central bankers are signalling that the next move in rates will be upwards, and this imminently.

Even after commercial rates go up, government, both central and local, will find it cheaper to borrow than commerce and industry do. Javed is right, but it is essential that central government puts the power back in the hands of local authorities and housing cooperatives, who know what the real housing needs are.

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