David Johnston: Don’t dismiss my constituents as NIMBYs. The areas they love are being blighted.

18 May

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.

Bim Afolami: Working from home means a radical culture shift – and it’s here to stay. Here are some of the consequences.

6 Sep

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

Holidaying in Cornwall this summer, I was struck by how many people I met who had relocated there (or elsewhere in the South West) permanently.

They all wanted a change of pace of life, a larger home in a cheaper area, and could work from home more often than not. Speaking to my constituents over the break, in a sear in which there are a large number of commuters to central London, the overwhelming feedback is that most former daily commuters are trying to restrict themselves to working only two or three days a week in the office, and working from home as much as they can (though some firms are resisting this change). Things have changed a lot in a very short period of time.

I believe that this is a trend that we will have to contend with, because people want more choice about how and where they work. This will have some significant political consequences in the shorter term, and over the longer term may have quite profound economic consequences that we should be wary of.

First, the number of working parents who are more involved with home life is palpable. Many more professional commuter dads (and mums) are more present in the local community – people who previously only saw their local area at weekends (they left early and came back late during the week) are now much more engaged with local issues, and noticing improvements they want to make to their area.

In my experience, many of these voters are highly intelligent and informed about a wide range of issues. But they used typically to consider political issues on a national, macro level. I am willing to wager that these voters are now going to be a little more localised in their perspectives: what their local MP does, and says, will matter more and more to them.

This does not necessarily make these voters more parochial – many people value their MP if they have a high profile and speak sensibly about national issues. Yet overall, I think the impact will be more variation in voting patterns seat by seat, as local issues and the reputation of individual MPs will increasingly drive voting patterns.

Second, with less commuting, there is a certain amount of spending that is not going to return to cities, and will instead be spent in affluent commuter towns in the Home Counties. Towns such as Hitchin, Tunbridge Wells, Ascot and Sevenoaks will thrive even more, and the propensity of local people to spend more of their money locally has increased, is increasing, and will continue to do so. People feel more connected with their local areas, and they are spending less money in London and other major cities.

What will be the political impact of these changes? In the short term, I fear that they may strengthen the existing divide between affluent areas and less affluent ones. Major cities will be a small net economic loser. This will perhaps slow or even reverse the rise in property values in our cities, which will perhaps lead to more young people, and more people in lower earning professions being able to live in the centre of cities like London.

Third, the environment will continue to grow in importance as a critical issue. The voters will increasingly focus on their own experience of the green spaces near where they live and reducing local air pollution; for most voters, the environment will not primarily be considered in an abstract sense about getting to net zero or reducing carbon emissions.

New large housing developments or new major roads over green fields will become even more unpopular. This is why the Government’s policy of introducing “biodiversity net gain” is so important. It is an opportunity to show the public, particularly in the Home Counties and in other areas outside major cities, that we can actually improve the provision of nature in their local area.

When the policy starts to bear fruit, people will know that we are serious about the environment in a way that directly matters to them. I think that the implementation of this policy should be sped up, and by doing so we can demonstrate our environmental credentials faster and in a more impactful way. I wrote about this a few months ago on this site.

As a Conservative politician, I instinctively take the view that the Government’s job is to support people’s aspirations and aims for themselves, their families, and their local areas. Many millions of white collar workers prefer to work a lot more from home; especially commuters who previously used to dread their commutes, whether by train or car; and there is mounting evidence that this shift is particularly pronounced amongst women.

However, we must be careful about the impact of this over the longer term. If accountants, solicitors, marketing executives, or insurance underwriters demand to work from home in Hitchin or Oxted, why can’t the firm hire someone with similar skills on half the pay in Hyderabad or Odessa? Even in situations where having a high standard of written English is fundamental to the job, technology for real time translation services is developing extremely quickly.

We know from the 1980s and 1990s how societally and economically difficult it was to lose millions of manufacturing jobs – let us beware of inadvertently accelerating the same process for services jobs, which would have an even more widespread and profound impact. Also, as my friends and colleagues Claire Coutinho and David Johnston have argued, younger workers lose out from the shift to home working – since they frequently don’t just lack space at home but also lack connections to help them develop the employability skills and social capital they need for the workplace.

We need to support the aspirations of all those who want more control over when and where they work – and more home working is inevitably here to stay. Yet in responding to this trend, our policies also need to take the interests of everybody fully into account, and bear in mind the longer term interests of the country as a whole.