Dean Russell is the MP for Watford and a member of the Health & Social Care Select Committee.
When Covid-19 transitioned from an epidemic into a pandemic, I was concerned over more than just the callous consequences of this virus. Rightly, the country demanded the Government direct the entirety of its efforts to saving lives, protecting the NHS, and supporting people’s incomes. Six months on, we have seen an NHS that never reached capacity; around 12.3 million people’s wages were supported by the Treasury and most importantly, the UK death rate has fallen to internationally low levels.
As the Member of Parliament for a constituency with a visible wealth gap, I remained adamant that the Government must continue with its levelling up agenda. Conservative MPs were elected on a mandate to give Britons to deliver opportunity for all and a real chance at a better life. In the United Kingdom, we don’t just have geographical inequality – we have an inequality within age groups. To date no government has faced up to this, and it is why I am pleased to support the new Planning White Paper curated by Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) Secretary of State.
Jenrick’s bold stance in his Planning White Paper will finally overhaul the 70-year-old planning and finally tackle the moral inadequacies built into the existing antiquated system. It will ensure that young people, first-time buyers, and those with lower incomes are given more affordable opportunities to move into new, good-quality homes.
Incredibly, not since Harold Macmillan held the ministerial post for housing in Churchill’s second term have we had a government genuinely committed to ensuring better housing opportunities for all.
To understand why the Government’s tenacity on this issue is so welcome, absorb these statistics: in 1995–96, 65 per cent of those aged 25-34 with incomes in the middle 20 per cent for their age owned their own home. Twenty years later, that figure was just 27 per cent. Home ownership has plunged since the 1990s for young people. In 2015-16, 90 per cent of those aged 24-34 had to deal with average regional house prices of at least four times their income compared with twenty years earlier. That is plain wrong.
This country’s planning system has long differed from other countries. Rather than a central process and system driven housing policy, we’ve given unique discretionary planning powers to local councils. What this Planning White Paper aims to achieve is a merging of the benefits of both systems. Local authorities will categorise areas between growth, renewal and protected areas. Only land categorised as growth will gain automatic planning permission and thereby speed up the process of delivering high-quality, sustainable affordable housing. The housing crisis is, as the name suggests, a crisis. The Government is overriding the clutters of unnecessary local authority housing red tape and replacing it with a desire to build what people from lower-incomes are crying out for – not just houses – but homes they can be proud to own of.
When I met with Jenrick earlier this month, I discussed the paramount importance of new builds being good-quality, environmental and a lovely place to live in. We all agree that whilst affordable house building is desperately needed, and the existing housing policy isn’t effective, the quality of homes matter.
I welcomed confirmation of the “fast-track for beauty” aspects of the Planning White Paper to make it easier for people to build beautiful quality homes. Through these changes to national policy and legislation, permit proposals will be automatically approved for high quality developments where they reflect the local character of the area. I also strongly welcome the Secretary of State’s addition that each local planning authority would have a chief officer for design and place ensuring quality is at the heart of the homes we build.
This is not just conjecture, to ensure homes built in growth and renewal areas are of the standard local residents expect, councils will create design codes. These will ensure housing matches what residents and councils want delivered, covering things such as aesthetics and energy efficiency. This will create clarity of developers who can mould new housing to ensure it meets the standards required by local authorities. At the moment, it is widely regarded that design codes hold minimal influence over planning decisions which is something I raised with the MHCLG Secretary of State which is why I was pleased that he is giving real priority to ensuring people live-in high-quality homes that match the local character of their community.
I have been frustrated, but unsurprised, by the unfounded rhetoric by some opposition politicians to this Planning White Paper; they call for change yet criticise reform that will truly help deliver a fairer, more environmentally-focused approach. To transform this country and tackle all forms of inequality, we need to alter our generational errors of the past. Young people in this country as well as those with a lower income need to be provided housing opportunities that successive previous governments have not enabled. To me, levelling-up is more than just rhetoric, this white paper will help deliver on an achievable, aspirational vision which will deliver sustainability, quality, and speed.