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Housing needs a radical but it’s got a Nimby

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

In the space of the past two years there have been, as of this week, four housing and planning ministers.

First there was Brandon Lewis (2014-16) who was hardly a visionary in terms of seeing councils as a vehicle through which the country could build more homes. Indeed, it was he who helped steer the Housing & Planning Act through parliament, which included clauses that would force councils to sell their most valuable homes to fund the extension of the right-to-buy to housing association tenants. Before Christmas Sajid Javid delayed the policy’s implementation by another year.

After Mr Lewis came Gavin Barwell, a man who instantly got stuck into his brief and, within a very short space of time, gained the respect of key players in both local and central government (that he is now Theresa May’s chief of staff is evidence of that).

While the sector did not agree with everything Mr Barwell said and stood for, he was nevertheless understanding of councils’ concerns: he was the first to put the extended right-to-buy policy on hold and his “sympathy” with councils struggling to retain planning officers eventually resulted in local authorities (finally) being able to increase planning fees. Mr Barwell also recognised councils’ ambitions to build more homes while he even had “no problems” with councils building homes for social rent which, at the time, was a radical shift in Tory party policy.

It was during this period, in the run-up to the publication of the housing white paper, that the communities secretary took the bold step of urging councillors to back proposals to build on green belt land.

“Local leaders must be prepared to make difficult calls, even if they’re unpopular,” said Sajid Javid in October 2016.

That sparked a backlash on the Conservative backbenches, including from one Dominic Raab: the new housing and planning minister.

At the time Mr Raab wrote to his local council, Elmbridge BC, to boast that he had “fought very hard…to retain existing green belt protections, and see off attempts to dilute them”.

He went on to say: “In my view, as we strive to build more affordable housing, every effort must be made to avoid building on green belt, and I hope this is a shared objective across national and local government.”

Interventions from the likes of Mr Raab resulted in Mr Javid having to climb down over proposals to build more housing on green belt land. Mr Javid has since had to publicly state, and re-state, his commitment to protecting the green belt.

In 2010, Mr Raab was full of praise when the coalition government “scrapped that strait-jacket target” in the South East Plan to build nearly 6,000 homes in Elmbridge, which is 57% green belt.

It will be interesting to see what he makes of his ministry’s standardised methodology for housing need then, especially as the government has estimated Elmbridge should build an extra 138 homes a year on top of the 474 homes per annum the council is planning for.

MPs are obviously meant to serve their constituents but as housing and planning minister Mr Raab will need to serve the country’s best interests as well, especially if he harbours hopes of becoming a future prime minister as some have predicted.

Tackling the housing crisis is a top priority for both Ms May and Mr Javid, and radical solutions are required if the government is to reach its target of building 300,000 new homes every year by the middle of the next decade (changing a department’s name to the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government just won’t do it, I’m afraid).

The latest official figures, published last year, showed 183,570 of the 217,350 “net additional dwellings” in 2016-17 were new builds. That is some way off reaching the government’s target.

More than ever, the country cannot afford to have a Nimby in charge of such a pressing policy issue. Telling local leaders to make some difficult calls is one thing, but Mr Javid will need to tell his new housing minister to do the same. 

While we’re on the subject of housing…

This week’s cabinet reshuffle saw Alok Sharma, the third housing and planning minister in four years, shifted to the Department for Work & Pensions.

He had been in the job six months and spent much of that time dealing with the fallout from the Grenfell Tower fire and listening to the concerns of the country as part of the government’s social housing green paper.

In that role Mr Sharma earned the respect of many, especially as he listened patiently to the views of social housing tenants.

Launching the green paper in September, housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid said it will “kick off a nationwide conversation on what has gone wrong with social housing, why it has gone wrong and, most importantly, how to fix it.”

With Mr Sharma in charge it felt like something might actually be done.

There was outrage when it emerged residents’ concerns were ignored in the run-up to the Grenfell Tower fire.

Shunting Mr Sharma sideways to another department raises fears that so much of what he had heard and learned from tenants during his tour of the country will now be lost.

As Mr Javid said in the aftermath of the fire, “we cannot allow anything like this to ever happen again”.

But a botched reshuffle has arguably done nothing to help prevent another disaster.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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