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Tony Travers: Javid must defeat his own side to succeed on housing

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The fanfare surrounding the publication of a revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPFF) concentrated on the need to build more homes in England.

Councillors and developers, according to ministers, need to change their approach to planning so as to deliver a large increase in new houses and flats. Even though councils give far more planning permissions than are ever turned into completed homes they, rather than residents’ opposition, are blamed by the government. So what about efforts by Conservative secretaries of state since 2010 to solve the political challenge that explains the perennial failure to build sufficient housing, that is, NIMBYism?

Eric Pickles promised his Localism Act would “return decision-making powers on housing to local councils and communities through a new Community Right to Build giving communities the freedom they need in order to come together to build new homes and amenities in their towns and villages”. At the end of his term in office, Mr Pickles wrote a long defence of his housing policies, but the implication of Sajid Javid’s new NPFF is that nowhere near enough was done. Like the Big Society, neighbourhood planning was a policy with no effective capacity to deliver.

Indeed, Pickles regularly used his powers within the appeals system to block developments where neighbourhoods did not want them. In much the same way that sitting Cabinet members periodically support local communities in opposing development on or near existing housing, there is a desperate conflict between the government’s stated intentions and the fear MPs feel when they face articulate opponents of construction. It will be interesting to see if this anti-development reflex now changes.

The government endlessly generates inconsistent policies. For example, departments are encouraged to sell off land at the market price, while so-called affordable housing needs such land to be acquired for housing more cheaply. Then there is the odd proposal of effectively building a new linear city in the south east, in the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge arc, further which would surely further reinforce the dominance of the London mega-region.

Most of the vested interests against housing development are Conservative-supporting. Sajid Javid will have to defeat many on his own side if his is to succeed where his predecessors failed.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London

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