Local councils will be judged not just by the amount of land they make available for development, but also by how much of that land is built on, the chair of the Labour review into the future of housebuilding told the Local Government Association conference on Tuesday. Sir Michael Lyons has been given the task of drawing up a plan for ensuring 200,000 homes a year are built by 2020.
Speaking to the LGA in Bournemouth, he said a Labour government would not be abandoning the current national planning policy framework that requires councils to make land available, and if anything it would be turning the screw on councils. He said: “We are breaking eggs to make omelettes. The backlog is so serious here that we have to do everything we can.”
His remarks suggest the National Planning Inspectorate will, if anything, have a bigger role in ensuring houses get built.
The way forward, he stressed, was not by central diktat but with clear expectations of what councils should achieve.
He said: “It is not enough just to judge authorities by the allocation of land. We have to follow it up by judgments on the extent to which that land is developed, and you cannot put councils in that position where you push their backs against the wall without giving them the tools to actually get involved in develop and building those sites themselves.”
He added: “The direction of my work is if anything we will turn the screw on the process to make absolutely clear that every community has to do its best.”
Lyons said he wanted to rewind the clock back to the 1960s when local councils played a major role in building or commissioning of as many as 130,000 homes a year. “We need to get local government back in the business of housebuilding. We have only consistently achieved the level of houses we need when councils were delivering a great many of them – a contribution that has never been replaced.”
But he stressed he wanted councils to be involved in the development of additional homes, and not displace the growing supply from the private sector.
He said: ” We are building fewer than half the homes we need each year. We are at the lowest levels since the 1920s and we have stored up a backlog estimated at someone near to 1m homes. It requires new freedoms and courageous local leadership to speak up for future generations.”
Signalling a determination to re-engineer the planning system in favour of development, he said: “We have to ask ourselves whether the planning system is used too often as a sword to attack any development rather than a shield against inappropriate developments.”
He added:” We should no longer tolerate the situation where we leave the job of finding land to the housebuilders, but then place obstacles in their way as they try to develop it.”
Lyons said the two main issues holding back the construction of more homes was “the wholly inadequate supply of developable land”, and the small range of those able to build houses in the UK.
He pointed out that between 1950 and the late 1960s, councils on average built 133,000 homes a year and the private sector contribution was just slightly larger at 136,000 a year. He said: “From the late 1960s that effort began to fall away, in part an inevitable pause in post-war reconstruction but also a response to growing concerns about the scale of public spending and the distractions of the Redcliffe-Maude proposals for the reorganisation of local government and perhaps some early faltering self confidence after the disaster of Ronan Point.
“By 1979 the number of council house completions was down by almost half to 75,000, and then [there was] a history of successive governments seeking to institutionalise the situation by actively reducing council powers and funding of local government. I believe we need to rewind that history to get back in the saddle – recapture that post-war confidence and we can build the homes our children desperately need.”
The current government, he said, “seems too often to respond with piecemeal and top-down initiatives rather than fully mobilising the potential of local government”.
He added: “House prices are now averaging at least six or seven times average incomes. The problem of finding a secure home is greatest for the young and poor. A quarter of adults aged under 35 are still sleeping in their childhood bedroom. Even if we want our children around, this is not what we want for them and not the right pathway to adulthood and the responsibilities we want to take on.”