One of the biggest challenges to economic and housing growth is infrastructure, especially how we define and fund it.
It is one of the biggest obstacles to delivering more housing. We must challenge the perception that it is planning legislation holding housing back, as claimed in last week’s newspaper headlines: “Chancellor loses patience with councils”.
In this case, the inference is that councils and communities are Nimbyist in their decisions about building housing on greenfield or brownfield land.
This perception risks simplifying a complex subject, which has been neglected for over two decades, and applying simple, one-size-fits-all national policies. George Osborne’s housing plan, which includes a plan to grant automatic permission in principle for brownfield site applications, not only works against the principles of devolution, but risks failing to understand the wider causes of housing shortages.
We do not properly understand or adequately define infrastructure when making planning decisions. We have little clarity on how infrastructure serving the houses we want built will be funded.
The receipts from any community infrastructure levy (CIL) or section 106 developer contributions will only fund 7% of the housing and economic growth in Lincolnshire, as is the case nationally. Infrastructure funding is fragmented nationally and locally between the government, the private sector such as rail and utilities, and quangos such as the Environmental Agency. We need a more coherent approach.
The problems with how we define infrastructure were illustrated in a recent housing application for more than 200 houses in West Lindsey. The village organised a petition against it and there was an extraordinary council meeting as a result.
One of the most striking aspects was that while the local GP practice was straining to accommodate the needs of the current community, NHS England deemed infrastructure for health as adequate for the increased population 200 houses would bring. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledged in his speech to the Local Government Association conference that the NHS England statistics on populations’ needs are out of date.
Communities working on neighbourhood plans have identified where housing growth should be. The apparent Nimbyism has been conspicuous by its absence. Residents rightly flag up the reality of infrastructure on the ground and help to inform the prioritisation of those needs at a lower level than a district or borough council can achieve.
The definition of infrastructure at various local levels needs more attention, as does our method of aligning different funding pots. There are some excellent examples of different fiscal tools such as pension funds being used to create housing growth, for instance.
Maybe the next Budget headlines could be: “Chancellor incentivises greater infrastructure delivery to enable housing growth”.
Manjeet Gill, chief executive, West Lindsey DC