Housing and Infrastructure – Group Leader update - 21 November 2016

Cllr Marianne Overton

Recently, Shadow Housing Minister, John Healey, commissioned house-builder Pete Redfern, CE of Taylor Whimpey, to answer the question of how to increase home ownership. It is the wrong question in my view. It would be better to ask how to ensure that everyone in the UK has a decent home they can afford, rented or purchased. Through the LGA, we have made some progress on broadening the discussion and clarifying that planning is not a barrier, more it is the affordability of current housing stock, connected to the local economy and jobs.

The rather bizarre conclusion by some in government, in response to everything from growth to social mobility, is that we need to support massive house building. Trying to increase supply endlessly without doing anything about the demand puts us on a road to failure.  If we continue to invite the world to buy our housing and inflate prices, will we ever get a balance where everyone can have a decent home they can afford? Stronger border controls in future may need to be coupled with stronger controls of local property ownership, if we are to benefit.

We are already seeing a version of this in St Ives where their neighbourhood development plan called, amongst other initiatives, for new-build properties in the town to be available only to full-time locals, to limit the number of properties sitting empty and to contribute to a stronger community.

From the public perspective, we need a balance of housing to match the jobs and services we can provide. Would you move to an area where you can't get a local school place, where there is no public transport, no ambulance when you need it, and a three week wait to see a GP when you are ill?  Areas with low public spend also have low house prices and low build rates in a downward spiral. Reductions in working tax credits and benefits also reduce demand most fiercely in the poorest areas, making the problem worse.

Too few big developers now control the housing market and keep prices high. Further they claim they cannot "afford" to build the matching infrastructure nor the right amount of affordable housing needed, so they don't. Sadly, using our taxes in grants to subsidise inflated prices is counter-productive and still leaves a serious mismatch where there are houses without matching jobs or services. It would be better to instead, charge council tax on building land (whether properties are built or not) to discourage land-banking.

The answer to the economy, is clearly not to just build more houses that local people cannot afford, adding further pressure on diminishing resources. The answer is to put in public services to support a foundation "core offer" wherever you live. We did that in the past, but now the per capita spend on public service has been allowed to drop so that even these basic needs are no longer being met in some parts of the country. I would therefore ask, if you can't afford the services, can we afford the housing?  Balance is surely more important than growth.

Please do share your views on this issue and any local housing or planning initiatives you have undertaken, that we can share with our members and wider LGA.

If housing is an area of interest and you are a member of the Independent Group you can join one of our policy think tanks by contacting the group office.

You can read the St Ives Area Neighbourhood Development Plan here.

9 February 2017