Housing and Planning

6 Apr 2024
blackcurrant field

We need to end the false logic that tackling our affordable housing crisis means giving in to developers. There is another way – we have to reform the national planning system, empowering local authorities to deliver affordable, social and council houses alongside the infrastructure that communities need.

This is the first in a series of blog articles I’m planning to write, to give people in East Grinstead and Uckfield a few more details about what I think on different issues.

I’m writing about housing and planning first, because it’s the issue that has come up most often with the people I’ve spoken to. Housing and planning also cuts across a huge range of other issues – where and how we build houses affects roads, sewerage, health, education, and the environment among many other things.

An affordable housing crisis

First things first: we are in an affordable housing crisis. More people than ever are struggling to afford a place to live, with over a million households waiting for social homes. House prices, relative to earnings, have more than doubled since the 1970s, and in England now stand at more than eight times average income. Meanwhile, rent inflation is at record highs, with average rent in England now more than £1,200.

As a result, many people face crippling rental costs, cannot afford to buy a home, or simply have nowhere to live at all. This situation is completely unacceptable.

Development pressure

At the same time, towns and villages across Sussex are under enormous pressure from new developments.

The national planning system is stacked in favour of developer corporations. Councils are required to deliver housing numbers by central government, and forced to accept a certain level of development. In East Grinstead and Uckfield constituency, Mid Sussex, Wealden and Lewes District Councils are struggling to meet those demands. Knowing this, developers attempt to get permission for completely unsuitable proposals, like those at Hamsey.

As a result, despite Councils’ best efforts, houses are frequently being built on greenfield sites, often at unaffordable prices and without the infrastructure to support them properly. Services like healthcare, water, sewerage and roads are being put under strain.

Breaking the false logic

The combination of the housing crisis and development pressure results in a situation where most people agree we need more housing, but most people don’t want it near where they live.

How, then, do we address this problem?

I think we have become trapped in a false logic. The false logic says that the only way to provide the houses people need is to get private developers to build more.

That causes a problem. Naturally, private developers will usually want to build the kind of houses that make them the most profit. They must make contributions to local infrastructure, but they are not usually responsible for actually delivering it.

As a result, a lot of new housing is not affordable for the local community, is not in the right places, and does not come with the necessary infrastructure. Under these circumstances, it’s understandable that local people are often resistant to new houses in their communities.

Another way

But there is another way to solve the housing crisis, by reforming the planning system.

What we need is much more social and affordable housing, not simply more houses that are out of most people’s reach. We need those houses to be properly planned, with necessary services and infrastructure. They also need to be planned in line with local nature recovery strategies.

So instead of relying only on private developers to deliver our housing, we have to restore the role of local councils and housing associations.

Here are some ways we can do that:

  • We should empower councils to build the next generation of sustainable, affordable, council and social housing.
  • That means giving councils the legal and financial powers to build, and powers to set binding targets for affordable and social housing. If necessary, local authorities should be allowed to borrow to fund new housing.
  • We should change the way national targets are implemented, translating them into achievable local targets and rewarding councils that support sustainable housing growth.
  • We should reform the Land Compensation Act. At the moment, land that might have planning permission is sold at a hugely inflated value. Reforming the Act would allow councils to buy land for development at current market rate, rather than the increased cost associated with development.
  • We should give councils powers to control the number of second homes and holiday lets.

Better planning

By giving more responsibility to councils and housing associations for delivering our housing, we can also improve the provision of services. Rather than building just where developers want, councils would be better able to coordinate new homes with the infrastructure they need. They would also be much better able to make sure new developments minimise impact on the environment and enhance nature recovery.

Of course, there will remain a major role for private developers in delivering houses. But people’s homes are too important to be left entirely to the private sector – and currently the balance is not right.

By reforming the planning system – rebalancing it in favour of local authorities and communities and away from private corporations – we can start to deliver the homes that people need without swamping existing communities or crippling our infrastructure.

If we do that, then not only will fewer people be opposed to developments in their area, but more people will be able to afford a home.

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