‘the Downing Street consensus is that planning reform is dead this side of 2015’ Telegraph

Isabel Hardman

Were Help to Buy a schoolchild, it would be standing forlornly at the edge of the playground, the last to be picked for the netball team. The Government guarantee for mortgages with a high loan-to-value ratio is now the Billy No Mates of policies.

George Osborne said that Help to Buy would meet “the most human of aspirations”, but right from the start, the scheme found few avid supporters, even in the Conservative Party. In recent weeks, those monitoring the UK economy have been lining up to criticise it, from the International Monetary Fund to the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the Governor of the Bank of England. When the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development joined the opposing team this week, Help to Buy started to look very lonely indeed.

Like the IMF, the OECD said the scheme would push up house prices, because insufficient numbers of new homes are being built. Indeed, the latest figures for England show that construction got under way on only 101,920 new homes in 2012/13, when economists estimate that at least 250,000 are needed each year.

Such a shortfall may come as a surprise, given that restrictive planning laws were supposed to have been relaxed earlier this year to create a building boom. But despite the furore those planning reforms caused, they have had little immediate effect beyond aggravating homeowners. The laws in this country still assume that communities will welcome a field being covered in new homes in the same way they did in the Sixties. But people, rightly, don’t just accept new development any more.

Nor do the reforms give residents a say over the sort of construction that is allowed. Meanwhile, the Government continues to push new housing through on appeal, piecemeal style, rather than in consultation with the community. No wonder so many are feeling a little Nimbyish.

So what can be done? Well, the Treasury lists a number of people who support Help to Buy who aren’t called George Osborne; they are developers such as Berkeley and their representatives at the Home Builders Federation. But there’s no point in making it easier to buy if there’s nothing to buy. And though the Government could have responded to the wise words of the OECD and the IMF about a lack of supply, it isn’t going to. It seems its strategy for mortgage finance is too ambitious, while its strategy for planning reform isn’t ambitious enough.

Treasury sources insist “we’ve got lots done, there’s more development in the pipeline, but there are no plans for more reform”. This initially sounds odd because last summer there was quite a hoo-ha over reports that the reviled National Planning Policy Framework might be rewritten. The Treasury even succeeded in getting the talented Nick Boles into the Department for Communities and Local Government as what other ministers called “Osborne’s spy”. He wasn’t very covert, talking to various newspapers to argue for more housing. But since then, there has been precious little movement and not much more building.

The mood has changed, and the leadership feels hamstrung. It believes that to ask anything more from Conservative MPs – already under the cosh from grassroots members over unwanted development – would cause uproar. A recent Commons revolt on rather minor plans to wave through more extensions and conservatories convinced ministers to rewrite those proposals. It appears they wrongly read the row as a sign that Tory MPs had reached their limit over the liberalisation of the planning system; the real problem was that these reforms had very little to do with giving local people a say and more to do with sparking wars between neighbours. And all the while, Ukip is using local planning rows to hoover up Tory malcontents, which makes backbenchers even more nervous.

So the Downing Street consensus is that planning reform is dead this side of 2015. “At which point we can go back to the party and ask them for more, as they’ll see the need by then,” says one senior figure. This approach assumes, of course, that the Tories will be in government after 2015.

There are some tweaks ministers could do now, if they were feeling brave. They could remove those rules that prevent locals having a say, or encourage more self-build, which is the antidote to developers imposing their unattractive rabbit hutches on unsuspecting villagers.

But there’s no appetite for this. Which is a shame, because the political mood has turned against the development of more suitable, affordable homes not because Conservative voters oppose young families clambering on the housing ladder, but because it was a botch job from the off.

Instead of answering that most human of aspirations, the Government has offered a lesson in how to lose friends and alienate people.

One thought on “‘the Downing Street consensus is that planning reform is dead this side of 2015’ Telegraph

  1. Isabel Hardman’s article states not enough houses are being built. The reason is the larger national house builders will not build anymore houses than they can sell in any given area. They certainly will not build the number of houses that they think will destabilize the market, i.e. developers speak for having to sell houses at a lower price.

    The theory that if more houses were built houses would become more affordable just will not happen, the developers will not allow it, the developers build for profit not for general need.

    Affordable houses should be built through Housing Associations and any available money should go towards Housing Associations not towards inflating the general market which is what George Osborne’s Help to Buy 2014 – 17 scheme would do.

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