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Sunday, 10 January 2016

We Need a New Approach To Housing and Planning


We hear a lot of talk in the media about the housing crisis and how rising house prices are making it more difficult for first time buyers to get onto the housing market. The media narrative, propagated by the BBC, the right-wing press and liberal Guardian columnists alike, is basically that successive governments have failed to build enough private housing and so demand outstrips supply. The implicit solution within this media narrative is that we must build more private houses, particularly 'starter homes' at so-called 'affordable prices' and that we must build them on green field sites as the extent of the 'crisis' demands it. Then prices will fall and young people will get a nice mortgage at 23 and a nice private home of their own.
Unfortunately this media narrative starts from a completely false premise, that being that building more private houses will reduce house prices. Unfortunately it is counter-intuitive not to swallow this premise, yet in actual fact the very opposite is likely to result. A lack of properties on the market tends to lead to a fall in people moving house, therefore leading to what estate agents call 'stagnation' , meaning houses aren't selling as much and so the prices stabilise or fall.
Building more private houses means that the market will start moving again, people start moving house, demand increases and prices shoot up. Even the provision of more 'starter homes' just encourages increased speculation on the property market, a rush to buy them and rising prices.

The government and large developers want people to swallow this narrative for two reasons. Firstly the current government, as well as many commentators from other parties, have an ideological attachment to the view that home ownership is preferable to providing rented accommodation. When Mrs Thatcher talked of a "property-owning democracy", she implied that those who owned their own homes had an increased stake in society and by implication were somehow more likely to make the 'right' choices at election times. Such attitudes have become embedded within the cross-party political class. Secondly the large development companies would rather build private houses (the bigger the better) to maximise profits and are desperate to get their hands on green field sites in order to avoid the costs involved in cleaning up brownfield sites. Developers and estate agents have no desire to see house prices fall for reasons that should be blatantly obvious. One word: profits.


Housing is a major green issue because the current government, and many within the opposition parties, wish to make it easier for developers to concrete over the countryside with housing estates, not just on the 'green belt' but on our unprotected green spaces. Since 2010, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has created a 'presumption in favour of development' within the planning process. Local councils have housing targets forced on them by central government and must either comply via local plans or they lose the right to block speculative planning applications from developers. Our countryside is under unprecedented threat from housing developers.
However it is also a green issue because of basic social justice. Social housing waiting lists are sky high and many low income people are stuck in bedsits because of a lack of council accommodation. Meanwhile young people are bombarded with propaganda urging them to get on the housing ladder, yet house prices continue to rise, meaning that buying their home is a pipedream. So they stay in a badly regulated and unattractive rental sector where they pay high rent for a privately owned flat which is poorly maintained.


The only way to convincingly stabilise house prices and to provide those people who simply can't get on the housing ladder with homes is to make renting your home more attractive and to expand the rental sector. By taking a chunk of people out of the housing market and putting them into the rental sector, you reduce demand and house prices stabilise.
Unfortunately successive governments have done little to counter the view that everyone should aspire to buy a home as soon as possible, that renting is for 'losers' or 'chavs' and that getting saddled with a massive mortgage at a very young age is the route to happiness. Private rental accommodation has been allowed to become hugely expensive with sky high rents in towns such as Colchester. There has been way too little regulation of landlords, allowing the minority of landlords who fail to maintain their properties or rent out dangerous homes with faulty wiring, dodgy boilers and so on to get away with it. It is absurd to have a situation where renting a two bedroom flat costs more per month than paying the mortgage on such a property.
Renting can be made more attractive by a combination of tighter regulation and capping of rents in privately rented accommodation. However the easiest way to ensure the provision of low cost, well maintained rental properties is to do the opposite of what every government has tried to do since 1979, namely to build more council homes and to expand the proportion of UK housing that is council accommodation. I can hear the screams of heresy already.


Unfortunately the reforms of the current government are making it harder to build more council homes in Colchester. The article above appeared in The Gazette in November of last year. In July, the Chancellor George Osborne set out plans to lower social housing rents by 1% annually from 2016/17 for the next four years. On the surface this sounds great for tenants, however it is duplicitous. It means that Colchester Borough Council will lose £10 million over the next four years and £143 million over the next 30 years as the losses from rent are not being matched with a subsidy from central government. This means a massive cut in the funding needed to build more council houses. Last year the council built 34 council houses in the borough, the first for 20 years. They plan to build a further 12-20, however this could now be under threat.
The article pictured a new development of council homes on an old garages site in Monkwick Road. This is precisely the kind of development that we need; social housing on brownfield sites. It is crazy to be discouraging this while at the same time making it easier to concrete over the countryside with private housing.


Unfortunately the current government seems determined to make it easier for developers to concrete over our countryside while at the same time destroying the social housing sector. The Housing and Planning Bill is one of the most dangerous and far-reaching pieces of legislation to threaten this country in a long time. Far from addressing the housing crisis, it has been designed to bring about the end of social housing in this country. What will it do:

1) Replace the obligation to build homes for social rent with a duty to build discounted 'starter homes' .Therefore increasing the number of people speculating on the property market and getting that market 'moving' and stimulating price increases.

2) Extend the right to buy to those living in housing association homes without any provision for like-for-like replacement.  Therefore reducing the number of social homes available.

3) Force so-called 'high-income' tenants with a total household income over £30,000 in England (£40,000 in London) to pay higher market rents.

4) Phase out secure tenancies and their succession to children and replace them with 3-5 year tenancies, after which tenants will have to reapply.

5) Grant planning permission in principle for social housing estates to be redeveloped as "brownfield land" . Therefore whole communities can be shifted out and the site bulldozed and redeveloped with greater ease.

The Bill therefore proposes to make renting less attractive and to reduce the number of social homes available. Most dangerously, points 4 and 5 above would make it easier to move out whole communities and redevelop estates as 'luxury apartments' and so on for sale. In London this could increase social cleansing and effectively enable the removal of the poor from an area in order to sell off the site to developers who will then build expensive private accommodation for wealthy incomers.


It is clear that there needs to be a complete change in direction in government housing policy, a greening of UK housing policy. We need innovative ideas in order to protect our countryside from the developers, provide more social housing, improve the rental sector and reduce demand. These could include:

1) Encouraging greater use of the space above shops in town centres for flat provision. A bold new initiative by Worcester Green Party aims to tackle the city’s housing crisis and at the same time ease development pressure on the countryside. The plan is to utilise the many properties above commercial premises that are currently unoccupied - and turn them into homes.
Now the party is calling on Worcester City Council to work with a new cross party group titled Living over the Shop (LOTS) to create an alternative to building more houses on green field sites.
The shortage of all types of accommodation is pushing up the cost of buying and renting a home. And in the absence of rent controls, the only way to reduce the cost of a home is to create millions of new homes across the country. The Green Party nationally is now pushing the Government to tackle the wasted space above many city centre shops.

2) Use brownfield sites which are of low wildlife potential. There are over 66,000 hectares of brownfield sites in England, and around a third of these are in the high-growth areas of greater London, the South East and East. Brownfield redevelopment can not only clean up environmental health hazards and eyesores, but can also be a catalyst for community regeneration, particularly when communities are brought into the consultation process of site identification and restoration. Managed effectively as a sustainable redevelopment scheme, brownfield sites can provide social housing, create opportunities for employment, promote conservation and wildlife, and offer a shared place for play and enjoyment.
YET CURRENTLY: Over 700,000 homes are planned in open countryside while brownfield land lies idle
The Government's recent reforms to planning have made it easier for developers to gain permission to build on open countryside and Green Belt. Already Local Plans propose to build 700,000 homes on precious countryside. We need not sacrifice the countryside when we have brownfield land in our towns and cities that could be regenerated to provide the housing we need.
I would add the caveat that some brownfield sites are ideal as places for nature regeneration. Camley Street Natural Park, near St Pancras in London, springs to mind. We therefore need a balanced approach. However we must reintroduce a clear and consistent ‘brownfield first’ approach in national planning policy.

3) Use the spaces indicated above to build more council homes not private homes. This can be funded and I explain how in my blog post linked below:

4) Abolish the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and replace it with one that includes a presumption in favour of no development with regard to greenfield sites.

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