Conservatives 2015: Five messages from the minister in Manchester

Housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis has had a busy schedule at this week's Conservative Party conference in Manchester, addressing a number of housing and planning-related fringe sessions. Here are five key messages to emerge from the minister's comments on the conference fringe.

Packington Estate: Hyde scheme highlighted as an example of new homes matching local style
Packington Estate: Hyde scheme highlighted as an example of new homes matching local style

1. Planning departments should be the 'heartbeat' of local authorities
Lewis said that he has no time for calls for more resourcing for local authority planning teams, pointing to billions of pounds of reserves held by town halls. He told conference delegates - including a number of Tory councillors - that "your planning department should be the absolute heartbeat of your council". Lewis said: "Whether you are doing it for the benefit of your community, or for your council officers' treasury pockets, you need a good planning department. If that means looking to your neighbouring authorities if you are a small district and doing shared work, then do it."

2. Neighbourhood plans help communities accept new homes
The minister told several fringe sessions that he believes that the neighbourhood plan process is helping communities to see the benefits of new homes in their areas. Lewis said that neighbourhood planning is a "hugely powerful tool", with some areas choosing to include more homes in their neighbourhood plans than required by their district's local plan. He told a fringe session: "I've met a lot of areas who have done neighbourhood planning, who in the privacy of a meeting, will admit they start off making sure that nobody will build anything anywhere near them again. But somebody round the table at some stage says, 'Actually, I've got two kids, can we build a couple of houses?' Then the publican might say, 'Well, actually, Friday night, I've got four customers, I need some custom'. They end up making very sensible decisions."

3. Small builders need help
Lewis told the conference fringe that "one of the challenges we have today is growing small and medium builders into bigger companies". One issue facing small firms, he said, is difficulties in accessing finance due to planning uncertainties. He said that, even where sites are allocated for homes in local plans, there is no guarantee of planning permission, making banks reluctant to lend. "That is a huge barrier to entry for small and medium sized builders in particular," Lewis said. He also identified planning obligations on small sites as a key barrier to small housebuilders, telling a fringe session that some councils' section 106 requirements are making such sites "completely unviable". "For local authorities to be asking for £145,000 per house in section 106 agreements on sites of six or seven houses is completely ridiculous," he said. "And then they complain that nobody is building homes in their areas."

4. There is a gap in the market for homes for active older people
Lewis told several fringe sessions that there are not enough homes being designed and marketed that active older people would wish to move to, pointing to his own parents as an example. He told a fringe session: "My dad is 73, he goes to the gym every day, he runs his own business, when I go home and say I've found a nice McCarthy & Stone place for you, I'll get a two word answer. He's got the home that he's worked for, and he's bought. There's not a product out there that makes him have a positive reason to say, 'I want to move to that'." Lewis challenged the development industry to "understand what is the product that makes my parents ... say, 'I want to move to that'."

5. Developments should bring people together
In a fringe session hosted by think-tank Policy Exchange and housebuilder Barratt, Lewis spoke of the importance of creating developments where "people are likely to meet and get to know their neighbours". Lewis said: "I've got housing estates in my constituency, which are very nice, very nice houses, where people pull up in their car, go in and spend the day with their family, go out in their car to do their social life, and probably never meet their neighbours." In the same fringe session, Lewis said that communities "tend to want houses that are typical for their area". He highlighted Hyde Housing Group's Packington Estate regeneration scheme, which "matched that Georgian, typical London, Islington finish". He said: "The community loved it, it's what they wanted".

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