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Localism: the solution to the UK's housing crisis?

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On 23 March this year the previous communities secretary wrote to three local authorities announcing his intention to intervene in local plans following years of no progress. Sajid Javid said a “persistent failure” to produce a local plan had led him to send in central government inspectors to Castlepoint BC, Thanet DC, and Wirral MBC.

Mr Javid, whose self-professed top priority was to increase housebuilding across the country, said the government could no longer tolerate “unacceptably slow” progress on developing supply, particularly in areas of “high housing pressure”.

And with an annual target of delivering 300,000 new homes a year by the middle of the next decade, many in local government are now arguing that the solution should lie in more localised, not centralised, power.

Lord Taylor, president of the National Association of Local Councils, said: “We need to empower communities to decide where homes will be because if you involve them in the process, it’s those communities that don’t want homes that will end up wanting more than they need.

“If you engage the community in an initial consultation and start to ask them what they want, you’ll find that they do want to improve their local area, they just don’t want more of the same bad housing.”

Lord Taylor speaks from experience. As a member of Roche Parish Council in Cornwall, he helped convince his local community to plan for an extra 150 homes last year on top of the 636 they originally requested in 2014.

“My very working class community in Cornwall firstly opposed the idea [of more homes] because they didn’t want the usual [developments] which are terrible, horrible little boxes that cut off the local history. They weren’t wrong - they were getting the dumping of housing that was being rejected by other parts of Cornwall,” Lord Taylor said.

So the parish council engaged in a consultation process that engaged the local community, listened to their problems and produced solutions. It created a ring road that prevented A-road traffic from dissecting the town, a new green area, and worked to improve housing quality. The rapid development as a result of the neighbourhood plan, has helped to contribute to the doubling of Roche’s population to more than 3,800 people in the last 25 years.

Since the first neighbourhood plan was approved in the Upper Eden Valley area in Cumbria in 2013, a further 500 neighbourhoods across the country have adopted similar plans. This begs the question: are the plans the panacea to the UK’s housing ills?

“No, of course not,” said Lord Taylor. “You need something different for urban areas, but the answer should still remain localised.”

To this urban end, Lord Taylor has three solutions: Firstly, “regenerate what you’ve got”. Under new changes to planning policy on brownfield land, any identified brownfield land will now receive permission in principle if published on a council’s brownfield register.

Points two and three centre on the same planning issues: “don’t just allow towns to sprall around the edges… and let the community change its greenbelt,” said Lord Taylor.

A more localised solution to the government’s self-diagnosed “housing crisis” allows for a return to the old-fashioned concept of placemaking.

Speaking at a Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government conference last month on the delivery of well-designed homes, Lord Taylor spoke of the need to invest time and energy in creating great places that “kind of last forever”.

“We have got to get more ambitious as a country about housing,” he said. “We need to get the confidence back to believe we can build those places [from 100 years ago] once more.”

Lord Taylor argues that imposing new housing estates of dubious quality on towns is more likely to lead to a rejection of the new housing supply. A far better policy by comparison would be to revisit the laws on greenfield land and allow for creative solutions to the country’s planning problems.

“We have to be courageous to be on the right page,” he said. “Planning officers can’t do what the government wants if policy creators are not creative enough to do the right thing.”

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