Housing strategy repeats old failings

The Prime Minister's memorable verdict on his government's progress in reducing its financial deficit was brief. "We are well behind where we need to be," he said. It might have been the subtitle for his new housing programme too.

Tony Fyson: "The country deserves more than a rehashing of previous initiatives".
Tony Fyson: "The country deserves more than a rehashing of previous initiatives".

But Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England displays no such modesty. It relies instead on blithe optimism that attending to the borrowing requirements of some aspirant first-time home owners and "reinvigorating" the Right to Buy scheme for social tenants will pull the housing market round and extend choice for those who rent.

The long-forecast housing shortages have translated into widely unaffordable purchase prices and rents. Seeking a photo opportunity to launch the strategy, David Cameron strolled round a new housing estate as Margaret Thatcher once did on derelict inner-city land. But he was recorded in the company of myriad hard-hatted developers, unlike his forceful predecessor, who shooed them out of shot to show that she was taking on the problem personally.

The depth of the housing crisis demands that the PM should put his political future squarely behind his solution. Any modern western nation that completes so few homes - only 115,000 in 2009/10 - while the number of households rises by more than double that number deserves more than a rehashing of previous initiatives. There is also an ominous tendency to echo the main aberrations that got the country into its present mess, namely an encouragement to overborrow for purposes of house purchase and distrust of public ownership as a means of keeping the rented sector "affordable".

Nevertheless, there are further signs in the strategy of the chancellor's Plan B: using public money to stimulate growth. A £500 million Growing Places Fund will support new infrastructure to "unblock" housing and economic growth. In addition, £400 million will be earmarked to help building firms start work on "stalled sites", which are erroneously assumed to be the result of an obstructive planning system. The announcement of more support for "local areas" that want to deliver large-scale urban extensions or freestanding new settlements to meet their own community needs seems to have briefly generated euphoria among planners who advocate such places to help ease housing shortages. But such projects will rarely gain support from the generally anti-development local public.

There is to be a prospectus outlining government attitudes to "innovative approaches" in this field and housing minister Grant Shapps has made encouraging remarks about new garden city ideas. Oddly, so too has the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange, which sees the move as deregulatory and anti-planning. But a lot of pecuniary and social gain will have to be on offer before communities start clamouring for their own new town. Such proposals have to be part of a wider national or regional strategy or the best hope of effectively addressing this disastrous housing deficit will not be realised.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues and TCPA trustee

The strategy is available via PlanningResource.co.uk/go/referencesection.

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