Bob Seely: The Government’s current approach to housing needs intelligent, sensitive reforms – not a complete overhaul

5 Jun

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

I always enjoy reading Henry Hill’s articles, but I take issue with his ideas on housing. I’d like to put another side to this argument, as it’s important to the future of millions of people and this Conservative government. Rather than the developers’ charter which is, we fear, what will be proposed in upcoming reforms, we need a community-led, environment-led and levelling-up lead approach to housing.

First, though, let’s agree what we agree on. Housing is a divisive and political issue. It is clear that we need to help the young without alienating the old. Henry rightly points out that, concisely put, older people tend to be homeowners and vote Tory, while younger people rent and don’t vote Tory. We agree that Tories need to be the party of the homeowners and the more we create, the better for us; all agreed.

In addition, Tory MPs are sympathetic to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State’s, aims. However, I – and others – feel Jenrick and his minsters have not made the case as to why we need to scrap the current approach, rather than intelligently and sensitively reform it. The system is, like any, imperfect, but we know its flaws and we would be more likely to achieve our aims through reform.

But over and above that, there are a series of ideas being championed that are – at best – questionable.

For example, Henry says: more and cheaper housing “scares off existing Conservative voters.” Sorry, but this is just wrong. What scares voters is not sensitively built, small-scale housing projects with a decent affordable element (for their kids) which add positively to existing communities, but environmentally destructive, unsustainable, mass-produced, large-scale, low quality, low density, car dependent, greenfield housing estates that despoil the areas they are built on. Oh, and which run a coach and horses through the Government carbon targets and environmental plans too.

Behind much supposed Government briefing is the lazy argument that we are not building. That is not true. For sure, the UK has historically struggled, but last year we built a quarter of a million properties, the best for nearly 35 years. If Boris Johnson’s target – which, by the way, is completely arbitrary – had been 250,000 rather than 300,000 homes a year, we would already be on target. The claim that we must change the system to start to build the houses we are not building is false.

Indeed, so efficient has the planning system been that the big developers are sitting on one million unused permissions. This begs the question: if the fault is with the planners or the developers who “landbank” permissions to restrict supply and inflate price? Rather than giving developers even more land and even less scrutiny, why don’t we reform the system to make sure developers keep their promises?

Henry argues: “Some of the arguments advanced by the Conservative rear-guard have indeed been breathtakingly disingenuous,” such as more housing in the South equals a betrayal of levelling-up. I see where he is going with this argument, but I don’t buy it. The purpose of levelling up is to reorientate development outside the South East. The Government has said that housing will be pump-primed with infrastructure funding; ergo: the more infrastructure projects in the South, the less in the Red Wall. One can’t spend the same money twice, all the time, as we are beginning to find out. Am I missing something?

Henry then argues, bizarrely, that “mass housebuilding isn’t part of the economic interventions needs to succeed.” That’s one hell of an assumption! So Levelling Up doesn’t need more housing? Clearly Henry hasn’t talked to the same Red Wall MPs I do. More economic development outside the South East will require more people and more homes. Again, am I missing something?

In addition, I am utterly fed up of hearing how places like the Isle of Wight must build more. For the record; in the last 50 years, the Island has increased its population by 50,000 – 50 percent. In the meantime a dozen midland and northern cities have seen absolute declines in population. Meantime, we continue to export our young people as housing is not build for Islanders!  We now face overdevelopment. This will kill our economy, much of which is visitor-dependent, and damage our quality of life. If there is one thing guaranteed to feed anger from so-called ordinary folks is the casual dismissal of concerns of overdevelopment by the Westminster commentariat.

We care about planning because we care about our environment, our people and our communities.  In a place like the Isle of Wight, that means building houses which are genuinely affordable (so yes, Council or Housing Association), in sensitive numbers, in a local style, in existing communities, for our local people and with their support. Post Covid, that also means using housing to revive our towns. Yet, the development that developers want; low density, four-bed, retiree cash purchase, has absolutely nothing to do with that vision or our need.  And a developer-led system will make that worse. A developers’ charters will not help to build for generation rent, nor will it help Islanders.

Finally, Henry warns of a NIMBY backlash, yet another slur on NIMBYs that makes me think this is not an accident but a theme being encouraged. This is foolish and bad politics. Rather than see NIMBYs as a latter day Zombie army of the planning undead, which is clearly how the debate is being tediously framed, one could instead see them by their other name: Conservative voters.

Anyone – anyone – who has dealt in any way with formulating local plans will know that many of these so-called dreaded NIMBYs have participated and often led the development of local plans that recognise the need for housing, but distinguish between the development their communities – and kids – need and the developments they don’t: faceless, greenfield estates built by developers whose approach is, literally, thoughtless.

Henry is clearly a student of politics. Implicit in plans as currently understood is the removal of a significant layer of local democracy and local input from the planning process. I hope this changes, but if not, these threaten to give Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens throughout England a rallying cry: Save local democracy from the Tories and their developer chums. We will haemorrhage council seats and support across England. Good politics? I think not.

Conservatives backbenchers are brimming with good ideas to reform intelligently the planning system; changing it to a community-led, environment-led and levelling-up approach. What we are against is dumping on our own voters and our communities to wave through a developer-led system which, many fear, threatens even more land-banking and even less scrupulousness in how developers treat or engage with communities.