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Mobility - if you are good enough

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The Conservatives’ housing green paper has been received with warmth by the Chartered Institute of Housing and the charity Shelter - and alarm by trades bodies for house builders and housing associations.

By floating a concept reminiscent of the Victorian ‘deserving poor’, and calling for the dismantling of regional housing targets, the Tories’ Strong Foundations: Building Homes and Communities clearly tries to differentiate the party from Labour .

On planning, local government might welcome the idea that house building numbers would cease to be dictated by regional bodies of questionable democratic validity.

But that relief might cool when confronted with a policy that, in effect, assumes communities will accept new building if the government bribes their council sufficiently handsomely.

On housing management, there are eyecatching proposals to give well-behaved tenants a 10% equity stake in their home, introduce a ‘right to move’ - though in a very limited pilot - and encourage more widespread shared ownership.

The proposition runs through the paper that social housing is vital for those in need, but residents should be offered an opportunity to move into private housing once their degree of need abates. It contains no hint of what the Tories would invest in homes.

“Our vision for social housing is that it should lift those in greatest need out of dependency and provide the opportunity to allow social tenants to continue on their journey towards other forms of tenure, including home ownership,” the paper said.

The Tories’ attitude to social housing is couched in concern about deprivation rather than worries about public finances and the presumed deficiencies of council management.

“Children growing up in social housing are, on average, twice as likely to end up with no qualifications by the age of 30 as those growing up in owned homes, 1.5-1.7 times more likely to be low earners, and over twice as likely to be unemployed,” the paper said.

Among solutions proffered is a pilot, limited to just five councils, of a ‘right to move’. This proposal has alarmed the National Housing Federation (NHF) and might also worry council managers.

‘Good’ social tenants could require their landlord to sell the tenants’ current home and use the proceeds, minus transaction costs, to buy another anywhere in England.

The NHF’s chief executive David Orr called the idea “poorly thought out, unworkable, and a recipe for confusion”.

He added: “It would mean that housing associations could end up with properties dotted all over the country,adding massively to costs.”

‘Good’ tenants appear again in the Tory proposal on equity stakes. A five-year record of good behaviour would be required to get a 10% equity share, cashable when a tenant left the social rented sector.

Good behaviour is defined in the Tory paper as “paying their rent on time and not receiving registered complaints from neighbours and/or antisocial behaviour orders”, though the party’s press release added a curious condition that tenants should “keep their garden tidy”.

CIH chief executive Sarah Webb said equity stakes to make home ownership a viable option for more people, reviewing policies on who can benefit from social housing, and giving incentives for house building “are all CIH proposals and their inclusion is welcomed”.

Housing policies, though, depend on homes available, and here the Tories propose the wholesale demolition of the regional house building target system.

They have three objections: that it is centralist, lacks public confidence and does not work.

“A Conservative government will abolish the regional planning system and revoke regional spatial strategies (including regional building targets), replacing them with incentives to develop,” the paper stated. There would be “clear democratic accountability and decisions made from the bottom up”.

Central government would provide “a steer on genuine national policy”, details of which will appear in separate paper on planning, regeneration and city governance, and councils would be free to revise local development frameworks once regional strategies were abolished.

The paper recognises that some planning issues cross administrative boundaries, but said only that the government would work with councils “to provide a broader geographic and co-ordinated view, especially in relation to infrastructure in the wider locale”.

During the last Conservative government, environment secretaries were routinely reviled by Tory councillors for forcing them to allow house building in areas inhabited by the party’s voters.

The solution now offered to combat ‘nimbyism’ is “a real and substantial financial incentive to reward communities that accept house building”.

Additional council tax paid by occupants of new homes would be matched by the government for six years, paid for by scrapping the Housing and Planning Delivery Grantand “top-slicing a proportion of annual increases in formula grant for councils”.

Match funding greater than 100% could be offered where new homes were affordable.

“Local councils and local voters will know that by allowing more homes to be built in their area they will get more money, either to pay for the increased services that will be required, or to hold down council tax, or both,” the paper said.

“This will be a permanent, simple, transparent incentive for local government and local people to encourage, rather than resist, new housing.”

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation and a veteran of many planning battles, sounded unconvinced.

He said: “It is essential that any localist approach results in a climate in which sufficient housing can be delivered. If it doesn’t, we are storing up both social and affordability problems for the future.

“Critical issues such as the process by which local housing requirements would be established, the role of home builders in determining this, and arrangements for allocating a developable land supply all must be addressed if we are to meet housing need.”

Adam Sampson, chief executive of Shelter , was more sympathetic. “The Conservative Party has rightly acknowledged that our systemic failure to build enough homes has resulted in the housing crisis we now face, and we welcome their strong commitment to build more affordable homes to address this.”

Mr Sampson added that he was “particularly keen to see further detail on planned Conservative investment in housing”. He will not be alone in this.

One proposal shows neatly how balancing demand for homes with local democracy can tie any policy maker in knots.

The party proposes to create local housing trusts, which would enjoy “unparalleled power to develop new homes and other space for community use, subject only to the agreement of local people”.

Village communities would “essentially provide themselves with permission to expand”. Would any be created? To placate fears of over-development, trusts would need 90% support in a referendum, a startlingly high hurdle, and even if they achieved this they would be limited to expanding a community by 10% over any 10-year period.

Labour tried a regionalist approach to deal with the problem that housing requirements, let alone major transport infrastructures, do not respect local administrative boundaries.

The Tories have rejected that in favour of a localist approach, but one that appears to deal with regional issues by ignoring them.

As Gideon Amos, chief executive of the Town & Country Planning Association , put it: “Strategic planning questions, such as whether to provide the homes the country needs, will have to be answered.

“If local interests were pursued to the exclusion of all others this could mean disappointment for many of the large numbers of families seeking a decent home.”

One might fear the Tories’ approach swaps problems caused by a lack of localism for those that would arise from the absence of any regional mechanism.

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