David Johnston is MP for Wantage.
They’re dismissed as NIMBYs. They’re told that they just don’t understand how hard it is to get on the housing ladder now or how little of the UK is built on overall. Commentators urge ministers to ride roughshod over the objectors and build, build, build.
But as it happens, most people in constituencies like mine do actually understand new houses are needed and they don’t object to taking their fair share.
The real issue is they’ve already had thousands of homes built near them in recent years and it has brought problems not just for them, but for the people who live in the new properties, too.
One issue is the quality of some of the homes is simply not good enough. Snagging issues are to be expected but a significant number of people experience major defects, from structural problems with walls, to pipes which aren’t connected properly.
One constituent told me buying a new home and been a terrible experience and one they would never repeat. Owning a new home should be a dream, but it’s too often a nightmare.
Another issue is the environmental impact of the homes. Not just large builders frequently building on floodplains, but building homes they know will have to be retrofitted in just a few years’ time. They do so because it saves them money today. In the words of the head of one of my local housing associations: ‘They’re building something to walk away from, whereas we’re buying something people need to live in for 50-100 years.’
Time and time again people find their thoughtful objections to the location or design of new homes are ignored by their councillors on the planning committee.
Then there is the affordability problem. The average house price in Wantage is £335,000, which is 9.2 times median income. I know the theory is that building many more homes will lower the price, but this has not happened and isn’t likely to – not least given the build-out rate is carefully controlled by companies on the grounds the market could only ‘absorb’ so many homes of the same type at one time.
For some new homeowners, there then comes navigating the problems brought by management companies, whose job it is to manage communal areas in the new estates.
Some of these management companies will hike their fees every year when it is unclear what – if anything – they do for the money being taken, but the owners are locked into a contract with little means of redress.
By far the biggest complaint is the pressure on local infrastructure. The two district council areas I cover are in the top ten areas of the country for housebuilding relative to their size, but they’re in the bottom third for infrastructure spending.
The largest town in my constituency is currently on a growth path to be 42 per cent larger in 2027 than it was in 2017; the second-largest to be 59 per cent bigger.
This means that it has become much harder to get a GP appointment or get your child into the local school. There are no additional bus services and the station closed during the Beeching cuts remains shut, so roads get more and more congested.
Infrastructure improvements are promised with every development, but my constituents know they almost never arrive. People experience a gradual decline in the quality of life used to have and yet they’re told they need to suck it up and take more houses – and ministers are encouraged to remove their ability to object, usually by commentators who live and work in central London.
When I lived in London I probably shared some of their prejudices but now, living in my constituency, I see up close what is actually happening.
Yes, the system does need reform, but not just to make it easier to build more homes. We need a tougher regime for the quality of new homes, which is hopefully coming with the New Homes Ombudsman. We need ‘use it or lose it’ planning permissions so that one million permissions already granted are built within a certain timeframe or given to different companies.
Homes should be built to the latest environmental standards government has set not, as at the moment, the standard that existed when permission was granted, often several years ago.
Companies need to be held to producing the number of affordable homes promised, not to drive down the number by claiming the development wouldn’t be viable if they didn’t get at least a 20% profit from it.
We need a tougher regime for management companies and greater support for small housebuilders to break into the market. And we need infrastructure to go in before the homes are built to support the increased population.
The indications are that the forthcoming Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will address a lot of these concerns (and some of the many others) so that we get the right homes in the right places.
As a conservative – and someone who spent their pre-politics career on social mobility – no-one needs to persuade me of the value of people owning their own homes. Nor do they need to persuade most of my constituents, who often have children and grandchildren struggling to get on the ladder.
But the way houses have been produced in areas like mine mean local communities have come to see them as a curse on the area they used to love. Don’t dismiss their complaints as simple NIMBYism – at least until you’ve looked up how many houses have already been built near them.