The limits of consensus

Originally posted on February 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Two weeks on from the Housing White Paper and a consensus is developing around many of its recommendations – but how long will it survive contact with the real world?

A big test for Gavin Barwell came on Monday at the annual lecture for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). While it would be unfair to characterise the organisation as England’s nimbys-in-chief, its members are not shy in holding politicians and developers to account, especially when it comes to the green belt.

The housing minister was joined on a panel by Shaun Spiers of the CPRE, Kate Henderson of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and Toby Lloyd of Shelter. If that did not quite represent all sides of the debate – a house builder would surely have proved too much for the blood pressure of many in the audience – it certainly brought many of them together in one place. Full marks to the CPRE for opening the event up to a wider audience via Facebook (housing organisations, please take note).

Barwell set out what housing might mean in the terms set out by Theresa May:

“A country that works for everyone is not one in which some of our fellow citizens are sleeping rough on the high street, but nor is it one where many of our young people are told they have to wait until they are in their 40s before they can afford a home of their own and not where people of all ages find themselves completely priced out of the housing market.”

He accepted the distinction drawn by the CPRE between housing need and housing demand but he also challenged it over its reputation in some quarters as a front for nimbyism:

“I know that’s nonsense, but I challenge you to go a step further and prove your detractors wrong. Support local communities in their quest for good design and actively seek out and champion the best designed development so that no one can say your words are not backed up by deeds.”

More consensus followed in the contributions from the other speakers.

Shaun Spiers accepted the minister’s challenge and welcomed the fact that for the first time in years a government was not just saying “weaken planning” or recycling ideas from thinktanks.

Kate Henderson noted that the CPRE had been in favour of post-War new towns as the best way to protect the countryside and the green belt. She welcomed the White Paper’s intention to legislate to allow locally led new town development corporations.

Toby Lloyd welcomed the government’s shift away from stoking demand to encouraging supply and especially the White Paper proposals on the land market. Though he appealed to CPRE members to recognise the needs of homeless people and the badly housed people Shelter represents, he sensed “a real opportunity to spearhead a new consensus on housebuilding”.

That was certainly the dominant tone but the debate and the Q&A that followed left me with two big doubts about its lasting impact.

The first is inevitably the recurring clash between the national need for new homes and local objections to them. As played out in the tension between the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and localism since 2010, this has often meant the worst of both worlds: an inadequate supply of homes co-existing with increased fears about over-development.

The White Paper is attempting to resolve those tensions with proposals such as a new way of assessing housing need and its stipulation that development on the green belt will only be allowed in “exceptional circumstances”.

This was its most politically controversial aspect (on the Conservative side anyway). “Exceptional” will now mean only where all other options have been exhausted. For the moment that seems enough but will it in the longer term?

If Barwell needed any reminding about the politics of this, his comments about there being “tough choices” to be made were enough to get him coverage in Tuesday’s Times illustrated by a picture suggesting he’s in favour of concreting over the Lake District.

What happens in communities that are surrounded by green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty? He talked of circumstances where councils would have to talk to their neighbours about meeting need but accepted that the duty to co-operate is not working.

And what about new towns? Locally led plans are all well and good but if new towns and/or urban extensions are to make a significant contribution, national leadership will be required. That is currently outside the consensus.

My second doubt goes back to my reservations about the title of the Housing White Paper and it was raised again in the minister’s statement about people “priced out of the housing market”.

Barwell ran through the key White Paper recommendations on reform of the housebuilding process and stressed the importance of everyone making a contribution:

“The private sector can’t solve this problem on its own. In the 1950s and 1960s, councils made a significant contribution and while no one wants to go back to large mono-tenure estates, council-owned local housing companies and housing associations have a crucial role to play in building the homes we need.”

He’s making all the right noises here but listen carefully. He must surely know that “significant contribution” massively underestimates the role of council housing in the only decades since the War when we have built enough homes.

For the record, local authorities built 1.5 million of the 2.3 million homes completed in the 1950s and 1.2 million of the three million homes built in the 1960s. In only two of those 20 years did the private sector complete more than 200,000 homes.

And note the explicit reference to building by local housing companies: actual council housing seems to have been airbrushed out of the picture along with any notion of lifting the borrowing cap.

That was not a coincidence. In the Q&A that followed, Barwell was asked about the references in the White Paper to companies and the Right to Buy. He said:

“We’re just talking about local housing companies that are building housing that is effectively social housing that may well be ultimately transferred into the Housing Revenue Account. We’re not talking about all of the other products that might be produced by local housing companies.

“But I think if the government really gives a push to this and encourages more and more councils to do it there will be something a bit perverse if when those companies were producing what is effectively social housing, people don’t have the same rights as people in existing council housing.”

That will come as a relief to councils who feared the Right to Buy might apply to anything built by local housing companies, but as a severe blow to any who still thought that companies might allow them to avoid selling at a discount.

While there is no detail as yet, the incentive is clear. Councils will effectively be encouraged to build all types of housing except the one they know is most needed and the one that people can actually afford.

Consensus only goes so far.

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