Thursday, 29 January 2015

The public can see how to get homes built. It's the politicians that can't.

A recent blog post by Alex Marsh highlights a theme familiar to regular readers of this blog, which is that the political classes are lagging and not leading on housing.
"The problem here is typically diagnosed as being that politicians feel constrained to offer relatively modest policy solutions and tinkering round the edges because they fear voters will reject anything more radical."
Those in the, ahem, (green) field will agree that that is absolutely right. Alex highlights though the publication of data by Shelter this week that indicates that opposition to development has softened, and suggests that any politician brave enough to break away from "the conspiracy of minimal policy ambition" might be pushing at a 'partially open, rather than a locked and bolted, door'.
The issue, I would contend, is not necessarily one of policy ambition. Whilst true to say that no party is offering more than modest solutions, a consensues has emerged about the need for boost housebuilding. Although Brandon Lewis confirmed recently that a Conservative Government would not reintroduce targets, Labour's Lyons Review commits to 200,000 new homes a year and the Lib Dems are commited to 300,000. No, the reason for the lagging and not the leadership has more to do with a conspiracy about the level of Government at which decisions about new housing are taken. Our old friend 'Localism'.
Labour's Lyons Review, for example, identifies one of the reasons that we don't build enough homes as being "the fact that communities do not have all the powers they need to ensure that homes are built in the places they want". Let us remember the Turley research of March 2014 that looked at what happends when communities do have powers over the homes that are built. Turley found that of 75 published neighbourhood plans, 55% were designed solely to resist development, rising to 63% in rural areas. Lyons does not, and perhaps should have, highlighted what happened to housing targets when the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) were revoked as a reason that we don't build enough homes.
But here's the thing. Were a politican looking to break away from the conspiracy of 'community control' to view the Shelter data alongside this YouGov poll from September, then he or she may just be tempted to try something brave. The poll asked whether decisions to site new towns or major new housing projects should be taken nationally (for England as a whole), regionally or locally. The results are striking:
  • England as a whole: 30%
  • Regional level: 46%
  • Local councils: 14%
  • Not sure: 10%
Let us just dwell on that. The Coalition Government has promoted 'Locally-Led Garden Cities", but only 14% of people think decisions to site new town should be taken by local councils. 46% of people think decisions to site new towns and major housing projects should be taken at a regional level, but the Coalition Government scrapped RSS and Lyons' incentives to local authorities to bring forward garden cities and new Strategic Housing Market Plans are only a tiny step closer towards regional or sub-regional planning than the current 'Duty-To-Cooperate'.

Politics, I imagine, is akin to finding a path between what the public want to know and what the public need to know. The rhetoric around housing in the pre and post-election periods will do both. The need to boost supply in order to solve the national crisis is both urgent, and as the Shelter data demonstrates, becoming more popular. The rhetoric around planning in the pre and post-election periods will though do neither. The focus on putting communities in control will not boost supply, and as the YouGov survey demonstrates, is not actually something that the public appear to support.

Brave policy solutions are good, but a politician brave enough to swim against the tide of localism in planning would be better.