Gary Porter: Self-build and custom build will become increasingly important to ways to deliver the new homes we need

In the UK we have lost the capacity for individuals to provide or commission homes individually tailored to their needs. But it aligns with the core Conservative belief in freedom.

Lord Porter is the Chairman of the Local Government Association.

Whilst you would be forgiven for thinking that Brexit is currently crowding out everything else, important work in other public policy areas is still taking place.

Housing is one of the Government’s key domestic priorities and a number of important announcements have been made over the past six months, including the scrapping of the Housing Revenue Account (HRA), the announcement in the Budget of an extra £500 million for the Housing Infrastructure Fund (taking the total to £5.5 billion to unlock 650,000 new homes) and the publication of the Social Housing Green Paper.

These are all positive announcements and provide the opportunity for central and local government to work together to support new and innovative ways of delivering the different types of housing that the nation so desperately needs.

For their part, councils are committed to delivering housing that is a world away from the monolithic council estates of yesteryear. Whilst there are many different ways of doing so, I want to focus here on two options that are often overlooked: self-build and custom build.

Following the commitment in the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto, the Housing and Planning Act (2016) introduced a ‘Right to Build’ whilst the Housing White Paper reasserts the Government’s commitment to support the self and custom build sectors.

The Government also supported Richard Bacon MP’s Self Build and Custom Housebuilding Bill. Following its Royal Assent in 2016, local planning authorities in England are required to establish local registers of custom builders who wish to acquire suitable land on which people can build their own homes and to have regard to the demand for this on their local register.

In 2016, 12,800 custom or self-build homes were completed – an increase of five per cent on the previous year – accounting for ten per cent of private housing completions. However, this is a much lower rate than other European countries: for example, in Austria they represent 80 per cent of completions whilst in Berlin alone some 190,000 dwellings have been constructed by self-build and custom- build groups.

What is fascinating in Berlin is that the municipality – the local council – actively seeks to help. For example, a group of parents will come together and tell the council that they want to build a block of apartments with a garden in the middle and a school. The parents have a shared interest in developing something that meets their children’s needs and the council responds as positively as it can.

Other countries have clearly maintained their historical commitment to self-build, whilst here in the UK we have lost that capacity for individuals to provide or commission homes individually tailored to their needs. However, these forms of building align with the core Conservative belief that government should provide people with the freedom necessary to allow them to pursue their goals.

Put simply, as we seek to address our nation’s housing crisis through new and innovative ways of building I believe that self-build and custom build will become increasingly important and that it will be Conservative councils across the country who will be leading the way in delivering housing which matches the specific and unique needs of families in their areas.

Robert Halfon: Now is the time for Common Market 2.0, and an EFTA-type plan for Brexit

Plus: We must be the Party for social housing as well as home ownership. And: why don’t we trumpet our history of social reform?

Common Market 2.0 deliver can Brexit before 29 March

Whilst I can understand that there are different views about the future of Europe, and that some prefer No Deal, I am mystified why some regard Common Market 2.0 as a retreat from Brexit. This is far from the case.

 For years, many Eurosceptics would have been very happy to see Britain in an EFTA-style relationship with Europe rather than be a member of the EU. Such an arrangement, advocated by Brexiteers in the past, would gets Britain out of the CAP and CFP.

Common Market 2.0 also means an end to Britain being subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court, and brings us out of political union. All these things were what many Leavers felt was most objectionable about membership of the EU.

The plan also safeguards jobs and ensures stability for business and our economy through membership of the Single Market. But members have far more powers to derogate from it (Norway obtained derogations from 55 proposed Single Market laws and Iceland from 349 legal acts).

It would also mean that we continue to be a part of an alliance of democracies – it would strengthen EFTA – which is important for geo-politics and would help to build up a useful counterweight to the EU.

On freedom of movement, under Common Market 2.0, there are significant safeguarding measures that place us in a far stronger position of power to stop freedom of movement in the event of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectoral or regional nature liable to persist”.

Financial contributions to Common Market 2.0 would also be significantly lower than under our payments to EU budgets – well south of £5 billion per annum. We would simply pay for what we participate in – membership, joint programmes, schemes and agencies and, on a “goodwill” basis, the EEA Voluntary Grants scheme.

All this means that we could take back control of our finances and can afford to invest in what matters most domestically – the NHS, policing, schools and community. 

Significantly, unlike the other proposals, Common Market 2.0 would enable us to deliver on Brexit by the end of March. We would scrap the Political Declaration, instead outlining Common Market 2.0 as the basis for the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

The transition period would give us the time we need to finalise and implement the agreement with the EU and EFTA states. This would means that the UK would leave the EU on the 29th March – with no extension of Article 50 necessary.

Common Market 2.0 is an agreement that delivers on the vote of the people, takes back control of our key institutions, ensures a good, free trading agreement with the rest of Europe. All this can be achieved without the need for the Northern Ireland backstop to be activated or weakening the Union.

Bleak House

We have a housing crisis in this country. Whilst I am passionately in favour of the Right to Buy and Help to Buy schemes, there is so much more we must do to help families on low incomes.

It’s worth remembering that one in four families have less than £95 in savings, and that the idea of affording a deposit is just for the birds. 682,000 households live in overcrowded accommodation and 1.2 million households are currently on the waiting list for social housing.

Millions more are struggling with extortionately priced private-rented accommodation, with one in five private renters cutting back on food to pay the rent. Many of these families simply cannot afford rent on their wages, costing the taxpayer £23 billion to cover the 27 per cent of private renters receiving housing benefits.

If we want to both ensure a good quality of life for millions of our fellow countrymen and women ,and save the taxpayer billions on the housing benefit bill, we need as much radical action on social and affordable housing as we do for those who want to buy their first home.

This is why the reforms set out by Jim O’Neill in Shelter’s new social housing commission is something that Secretaries of State, such as James Brokenshire, should be listening to. They propose 3.1 million more social homes, costing £10.7 billion a year, but which in reality, would be reduced to £3.8 billion with savings in benefits, and returns to the Government arising from the knock-on economic benefits across the economy.

The housing situation in our country is bleak. We must be the Party of home ownership but we must also be the Party for affordable and social housing. Whether these proposals are adopted or not, the Government has got to come up with a solution that solves our social housing crisis in our country.

The Party of social good

There is an umbilical cord between the British people and the NHS. It was extraordinary and wonderful to see two days of wall-to-wall coverage showing Government financial support for our NHS and its Long-Term Plan. It is an important tribute to Matt Hancock and Jeremy Hunt.

Even better, Hancock reminded the House in his statement that it was a Conservative, the Sir Henry Willink, who first put forward proposals for a NHS and, whilst built by a Labour Government, it is clearly the Conservatives who pioneered the idea of health care free at the point of access.

Matt’s mention of a Conservative creating major social justice reform is something that all Conservatives should be doing all the time. Why on earth do Conservatives not do more in Parliament, speeches, articles and conversations, to remind the public that, so often, in the history of our country, it has been  Conservatives at the forefront of groundbreaking social reform in our country? Whether that was  Wilberforce and slavery, Disraeli and the condition of working people, Macmillan and affordable housing, Thatcher and the Right to Buy, Osborne and the National Living Wage.

Labour mention their historic record on social justice time and time again. It’s time we did so.

Stephanos Ioannou: Councils have the financial incentive to rubber stamp bad development proposals

Jeopardising local beauty and conservation for the sake of housebuilding is a real problem for councillors. We have to defend our communities.

Cllr Stephanos Ioannou is a councillor in Enfield. He is studying Public Policy at King’s College London.

Local councillors across the country will know the struggle is real in the planning system. Not only does it seem to be irresponsive to the real needs of our local communities that are in need of mixed residential, commercial, office, public buildings and green space.  But we see planning applications that pose more negatives than positives being allowed to pass through for ‘the greater good, and the bigger picture’.

One surprising reason for this can be derived from the fact that awarding planning permission in the UK comes down to a Faustian pact. If the devil is in the detail, then the detail is Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Specifically, a clause which formalised “planning gain”, making it in the local authorities’ interests to allow schemes to balloon beyond all reason, in the hope of raking some of the developers’ profits for the public good.

Introduced as a negotiable levy on new development, Section 106 agreements entail a financial contribution to the local authority, intended to be spent on offsetting the effects of the scheme on the local area. The impact of a hundred new homes might be mitigated by money for extra school places, or traffic calming measures. In practice, since council budgets have been reduced, Section 106 has become a primary means of funding essential public services, from social housing to public parks, health centres to highways, schools to play areas. The bigger the scheme, the fatter the bounty for both developers and authorities. Vastly inflated density and a few extra storeys on a tower can be politically justified as being in the public interest, if it means a handful of trees will be planted on the street.

My borough, Enfield, is seeing a surge in young families moving to our borough to escape the surge in housing costs elsewhere in the capital. Predominantly the reasons for the rising demand in our borough are those highlighted by an article in the Evening Standard which mention the ease of accessibility with good motorway connections, good transport links into central London, as well as a the fact that average house prices are modestly rising only 0.4% in our borough, which is something to be reckoned with compared to other parts of London.

But things start to go wrong when planning departments do not take into account, aspects of the local area that make our borough unique. Whether looking at local heritage, the mix of commercial, residential, offices, and the style of new builds, often Enfield Council is quick to bow to the demands by developers and architects for the simple reason of referring to ‘the housing shortage and the need for new homes’. This is a poor state of affairs, and I am worried that the council is moving towards the path of jeopardising local beauty and conservation for the sake of housebuilding. Particularly for a borough such as Enfield which is lucky to have the green-belt it does, this is a real problem for councillors who have to defend their communities.

The issue of planning is also one that concerns the issue of bureaucracy within the council, that sometimes leads to poor decisions and outcomes on certain issues.  I remember a local constituent having issues with an application for the property behind her. The Council had, instead of looking at the issue and reopening the planning decision, moved on ‘under delegated powers’ despite major resident objections, to see this build through. This point is echoed by a piece in the Enfield Independent which mentioned that the construction caused ‘considerable cracks in the neighbouring properties of other residents’, and that despite objections being raised within the given time-frame of the regulated pre-planning decision consultation, the planning committee on the council did not even bother to respond to residents’ concerns, and even after ringing, residents could not get in touch with the department.

This goes fundamentally to the heart of what us Councillors try to do, and sometimes can’t do, that is to help our residents most when they need it. Why? Because the failures of planning departments, in this case, mean bureaucracy causes delays, which then causes miss-representation, which then lead to poorly made planning decisions that affect not only the aesthetics of the area, but the general confidence residents have in the council dealing with their concerns in future.

It also raises a bigger question, as to how many similar cases are there, where other developments have gone through without the necessary vigorous scrutiny they need? I agree that we must build for new families and promote a home-owning democracy, but if departments simply rubber stamp applications without giving the power to residents and councillors to scrutinise for the greater good, then what’s the point in even having these departments anyway. We might as well pack up and go home as Councillors, because they are making a major part of our job redundant.

Overall, we have a conundrum of problems. Firstly, local councils are disregarding the necessary mix of residential, commercial and office space for the sake of building homes to fix the housing crisis. This is further worsened by the fact developers can ‘help’ plug the funding pressure of new homes, and contribute towards the funding of some local services, and this makes it increasingly tempting for councils to bow to these demands so that they can increase provision because budgets are tight. And then there is the nitty-gritty issue of local residents who struggle to even express their concerns to local planning departments, and this does not help residents build trust in councils who clearly disregard their concerns.

Local council planning departments such as those in Enfield need a major rethink as to how they approach future planning applications. Otherwise we can expect poor decisions on planning to continue into the future, to the detriment of  existing residents.

James Palmer: We need a Minister for East West Rail

We must drive this project forward. It is a vital piece of infrastructure which could allow a million new homes to be built. But we need to sort out the route.

James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

When it comes to Government investment in infrastructure, there is much talk of the need to redress the north-south divide. There are many myths around this debate, but while much focus gets placed on Greater London versus the north, there is less attention on the central heart of this country, and transport connections east and west.

So of course I welcome the development of East West Rail, which will connect Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge, as well as the emerging plans for an expressway linking the two University cities. The economy of this central belt is flourishing, supporting pioneering enterprises which are at the world’s forefront. It is rightly labelled as the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley. This growth corridor hosts clusters of businesses in life sciences, digital and advanced engineering and technology, and competes internationally for research and development funding and other inward investment.

The Cambridge to Oxford ‘Arc’ alone supports 1.8 million jobs and generates £90 billion in “gross value added” (GVA) for our economy. The National Infrastructure Commission estimates that with the right Government investment, that GVA could increase by a further £163 billion, with an additional 700,000 jobs created, by 2050 – double the economic growth that could be achieved if the Government does nothing.

In short, this rail scheme will be vital for UK plc. So vital, in fact, that I think the Government needs to appoint a Minister for East West Rail.

The good news is I understand it is the Government’s intention to do just this. To have a Minister pounding the corridors of Whitehall to drive this project forward will be hugely significant, and will improve on the already good levels of inter-governmental working there has been.

Let’s have a Minister with a vision for a true East West Rail too. Why does it have to stop at Cambridge? The economy of the East will be hugely boosted if the route also connects centres like Bury St Edmunds, Stowmarket, Ipswich and the major port at Felixstowe. I know from the western side too, there is real appetite to extend the line to Bristol. What we would then get is a real East-West link that will deliver growth across a key central southern belt of this country.

But we also need to be clearer on what the benefits are for local people. It’s about how this will grow the economy, create new jobs, and ease the pressure on housing through the delivery of a million much-needed new homes. It is also as much about better transport connections along the route, as it is connecting Cambridge and Oxford. People in Bedford and Sandy, for example, will suddenly have a fast route into Cambridge. East West Rail is a transformational project, but this isn’t yet cutting through to communities. Key to this will be improved local engagement. The last meeting I went to on East West Rail saw Government officials talking to a room about what they intended to do, with little dialogue. The approach needs to change.

We now have the Cross Corridor Leaders Group, which encompasses the leaders and chief executives of the 28 relevant local authorities, and which is still in its early phases.  We also have the strategic alliance England’s Economic Heartland which I believe should expand to include more authorities in the East.  There is great potential for a Minister to work with these groups representing people and businesses, to ensure a clear strategy can be developed that satisfies as far as possible both the local and national priorities.

The Government clearly needs support from local leaders too. Kit Malthouse wrote to me last year asking where we can accommodate our share of the million homes along the corridor. My response was: “first tell me where East West Rail is going”. We can’t plan for housing without certainty of the route of the rail line and the expressway, including how this will impact on local plans in some of the 28 local authorities. I know in the West there is uncertainty over where the expressway will go and here in the East we don’t know, for example, if the rail route will go through Sandy and southern Cambridgeshire, or follow the existing A428 corridor.

Let me also sound a note of warning. East West Rail should not be seen as simply a boost to an already prosperous area. The 2018 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review report, led by economist Dame Kate Barker, stressed that to secure the continued growth of our unique economy, a range of challenges need to be overcome, with transport infrastructure and housing key among these. We have ageing transport networks and house prices which in Cambridge are 13 times average household earnings. It is not sustainable and we need solutions urgently.

We need East West Rail to integrate with existing transport and housing plans, such as the emerging Cambridgeshire Metro, which will deliver a world-class mass transit system that can complement the new rail link. We also need to ensure East West Rail dovetails with our plans to build more homes, including through garden villages, which will be unlocked by the delivery of the Metro system and other infrastructure schemes we are developing.

I know as Mayor, delivering even simple infrastructure upgrades is not easy and requires unrelenting focus. East West Rail is essential, but it will stagnate without drive from central Government and partnership working with local representatives.

East West Rail is too important to the future of the UK economy to fail. We need a Minister in charge who will ensure that is not an option.

 

Antoinette Sandbach: Lower bills, less waste and better health. Time to insulate UK homes.

Other countries manage to do this far better than we do; it is not right that Britain should fall behind on such a simple act.

Antoinette Sandbach is a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee 2015-2017, and is MP for Eddisbury.

Last year, unnecessary winter deaths topped 50,000 – and more than 15,000 of these are directly relatable to a cold home.

This figure is shameful, and represents a huge amount of suffering. It is also clearly avoidable. There can be no justification for cold homes in the UK, blighting the lives of the neediest in society and leading to knock-on effects that spread through the economy – from lost working days to hospital visits and tumbling morale.

Before fingers start to be pointed, we must be clear: this figure is not due to rising energy bills, which, on average, have fallen over the past decade. They are also declining as a percentage of household income, the latest Ofgem data shows, as energy-hungry appliances are replaced with low-power alternatives and inefficient gas boilers are upgraded to the latest technology.

But while our TVs, computers and fridges are costing less to run, we still waste a huge amount of energy from UK homes in the form of heat. This is one of the largest open goals in UK politics: the lack of measures to insulate our homes and slash how much energy is wasted from leaky windows and poorly insulated walls and roofs.

Since 2008, the Government has logged the energy efficiency of UK homes as they have been sold or built; a register of 16 million homes that cover close to 1.5 billion square meters of British soil. They make for unpleasant reading. Upwards of 11 million of these miss the EPC C rating, which should be the bare minimum for any home.

This isn’t just a problem with older homes, in 2017, the largest entry on the register was band D properties, while more than 1.1 million properties are F- or G-rated, from which heat will be pouring out. Unquestionably, the homes of the poorest are likely to be the least-well insulated.

In addition to costing more to run, wasting so much heat requires us to import more gas from overseas, as well as unnecessarily adding to national carbon emissions. Imagine another aspect of life that was this wasteful. Cars that had not improved fuel efficiency in years, or businesses choosing not to boost competitiveness by reducing energy costs. It just doesn’t make sense.

Poorly insulated homes are also not fit for the future, something that Government is more than aware of. The Clean Growth Strategy aims to upgrade as many homes as possible to EPC grade C by 2035, but, unfortunately, is light on detail about how we get there.

Luckily, enthusiasm on both benches should help them decide. Building on recently-passed legislation that will ensure rented homes are warmer, cheaper and more pleasant to live in, a bill is working its way through the house on the potential for technology to boost energy efficiency. UK companies are among the market leaders in developing low-carbon tech, including on innovative efficiency kit, but without a route to market many of them will continue to rely on sales overseas.

A much-needed inquiry from the BEIS committee into energy waste will inject expert opinion into the debate, throwing forward a host of policies that can help us slash energy waste across the nation.

Legislation to ensure that new homes are built to the highest possible standards must, surely, make sense. Opposition from the housebuilding oligopoly needs to be shouted down, with developers forced to build high quality homes that will be cheap to run for decades to come.

The failure of the last wide-reaching piece of efficiency legislation – the Coalition-introduced Green Deal – should not dissuade ministers from acting in this space. It won’t be difficult to get this right – ensuring that new homes are built to the highest standards and that homeowners are incentivised to upgrade windows and insulate lofts.

After all, less money spent on heating leaves more to pump into the economy; research has shown that every pound invested in energy efficiency will boost GDP by £3.20 as the country is left with more disposable income to spend on household bills, new clothes or weekends away.

Other countries manage to insulate their homes far better than we do; it is not right that Britain should fall behind on such a simple act. If we get this right – and there is no reason why we should not – morbid headlines about winter deaths will rightly become a thing of the past and we as a nation will be able to take pride in all of society living in high quality homes.

“No-one voted for Brexit to become poorer.” Really? We vote to deny ourselves money all the time.

Security, cohesion, integration, solidarity: all are intangible. But we pay – literally – to gain them. Why single out self-government?

Philip Hammond may have coined the phrase – an appropriate use of the term, in this case.  “No-one voted to become poorer or less secure,” he told the Conservative Party Conference in 2016, less than six months after the Brexit referendum vote.  As others have taken those words up, the last three have tended to drop off it.  But was he right?

Obviously, even as senior a Minister as the Chancellor cannot have read the minds of all 17 million plus of those who backed Leave – the largest number of people who have ever voted for anything in a British poll.  But let us leave the point there, and turn to his own department’s forecasts.  The Treasury’s median long-term estimate is that a WTO-based outcome would reduce cumulative growth over 15 years from about 25 per cent to about 17 per cent.  In other words, GDP would, under this scenario, be eight per cent lower than it would otherwise be.  It would rise more slowly, not fall.

So even the Treasury, the high temple of Remain, doesn’t expect us to become poorer – but rather, less rich than we would otherwise be.  You may counter that this lost growth would mean lost wages and tax receipts, lower spending and higher tax.  Or that some short-term forecasts do suggest that we will become poorer this year in the event of No Deal.  (The CBI is pushing a very-worst-case scenario today.)

We could come back by pouring cold water on all such forecasts, starting with George Osborne’s referendum campaign projections of an “immediate” recession, half a million more people unemployed, and house prices 18 per cent lower than they would otherwise have been.  Instead, the economy grew, unemployment fell and house prices rose.  But rather than vanish into a statistical snowstorm, we ask our readers to view Hammond’s statement from a different angle – two angles, to be precise.

The first is from the Left.  Trident costs the taxpayer roughly £2 billion a year.  That money could instead be spent on tax cuts or public services.  Very many on the Left (and some on the Right) argue that it should be.  They say that we don’t use Trident, wouldn’t ever use it, shouldn’t ever use it.  The cash should go instead on schools or hospitals or benefits or childcare.

Next, mull an argument from the Right.  Overseas aid comes at a price of about £14 billion annually.  Again, that money could be spent on public services or tax cuts – or, the Right being the Right, on debt repayment.  A lot of people on it – and a sprinkling on the Left – hold that development aid is wasted or stolen and perverts incentives and is subject to the law of unintended consequences.

Now stand back from the fray, and ponder a stubborn fact.  Voters consistently back Trident and aid.  No, that’s not quite right.  Rather, put it this way: voters consistently return governments committed to both.  Then turn to another subject to illustrate the same point.

Pro-migration campaigners argue that it makes us richer – both overall and per head.  Others dispute that claim.  Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that those campaigners are right.  Even if every single voter could be persuaded of this, there is reason to doubt that all of them would come round to wanting higher rather than lower migration.  Very many would believe that there would still be costs in some places to higher immigration – in terms, for example, of pressure on housing.  And then there is the i-word: integration.

At which point, it is worth standing back from Hammond’s statement, and asking not whether he was right or wrong, but what he actually meant – or implied.  Who is the “no-one” in question?  Who are those to whom he glancingly refers?  Obviously, the British people.  But that’s a term which invites further thought.

In one sense, the British people is a single entity; in another, it is lots of groups of people, breaking down in turn into families and individuals.  Many of them help to pay for others.  Older people tend not to use schools, but they help to fund them.  Younger people use the NHS less than older ones, but they help to pay for it.  Londoners, some say, subsidise the rest of the UK.  And so on and so forth.

Readers will see where all this is going.  At each election, we vote to “make ourselves poorer”, in the sense of becoming less rich than we otherwise would be.  We plump for Trident because we worry about our security (to reprise the Chancellor’s word); or for lower migration because we think it will mean more cohesion, or for overseas aid because of solidarity with those who suffer. We vote to fund public services we don’t use and parts of the country we don’t live in.  Security, cohesion, solidarity: these are intangibles.  They can’t be touched or smelled or tasted – seen or heard.  They may lead to material gains, but they are not material themselves.  None comes with a price tag, but all have value.

Let’s end by illustrating the point.  John Hume was fond of quoting his anti-sectarian father, who used to say: “you can’t eat a flag”.  True – and anyone who has tried to do so has presumably been disappointed.  But the reverse also applies.  No-one, we suspect, has ever sung: “I vow to thee, my breakfast.”  Those intangibles – such as self-government, to cite another – matter.  From one point of view, the desire for the last is a form of solidarity or even for, to use a more EU-ish word, subsidiarity.

You can properly reply that self-government and patriotism aren’t the same thing, or even that they don’t overlap at all.  So be it.  What you can’t do, this site believes, is claim that Brexit alone, uniquely, exceptionally, will make us less rich than we otherwise would be (if it does so at all).  By commission, by omission, in the ballot booth and out of it, we opt to do this all the time – almost without noticing.

Hiten Ganatra: Why Help to Buy should be extended – not curbed

Applying it to second properties would see more stimulation in the market and see a quick and notable rise in established properties selling.

Cllr Hiten Ganatra is a Milton Keynes councillor and Managing Director of Visionary Finance.

Owning your own home is one of the most exciting dreams any young person can hold. For many aspiring first-time buyers without the bank of mum and dad, that dream is increasingly more difficult to achieve. If you are fresh out of University, in your first job with an average salary, and perhaps renting a flat or room and after your weekly shop and bills, you find it almost impossible to put away the savings you would need for a full deposit on a first home. Help to Buy has helped thousands in such a situation realise that the dream isn’t as far away as they thought.

There are currently three different types of Help to Buy schemes, the ISA, where if you save £200 you get a £50 bonus. Shared Ownership, where you buy a share of a property between 25 per cent – 75 per cent, and the main Equity Loan scheme, where the government lends you up to 20 per cent of the cost of your newly built home, so you only need a five per cent cash deposit and a 75 per cent mortgage to make up the rest.

Since its creation in 2013, the Help to Buy schemes together have helped over 350,000 people in the UK to cross the threshold and buy their own home. Furthermore, the schemes have supported individuals and families in all corners of the UK, with over 93 per cent of completions across the Help to Buy schemes taking place outside of London.

However, there is a growing school of thought that Help to Buy has run its course. Indeed, housebuilders and potential first-time buyers were steeling themselves for an end to the Help to Buy Equity Loan scheme in the Autumn Budget – but it wasn’t to be. In fact, the scheme was extended by two years to 2023.

Its critics argue it has done little but inflate the housing market further. I argue otherwise. We can’t ignore the positive impact the scheme has had.

The equity loan had two primary purposes. The first was, as the name suggests, to help people buy. The scheme has unquestionably succeeded in delivering this, 350,000 new home owners will tell you. The second was to help builders build. As Steve Turner, of the federation trade group, recently said, Help to Buy is meeting “all of its objectives.”

We can’t hide from the fact we have a shortage of homes. The consequences of the lack of supply and the increase of demand has had some significant consequences. For example, on average, house prices are now almost seven times people’s incomes. There are now more than nine million renters in private rented accommodation. And since 1999, house prices have risen across the country from 104 per cent in the North East, to an eye watering 222 per cent in London.

The Government has committed a total of at least £44 billion of capital funding, loans and guarantees to support the housing market through to 2022-23, which will help deliver 300,000 net additional homes a year on average by the mid-2020s. They’ve also launched Homes England, which will bring together planning expertise and land buying powers to acquire, prepare, and develop land in areas of high demand, with a focus on brownfield sites.

But the big boost on the ground for house builders has been Help to Buy. In the first year it was launched, housing starts in England rose by 15 per cent, from 28,630 to 32,890. Today one in three new build properties outside London are bought through a Help to Buy. Housebuilders have widely welcomed the role that Help to Buy has played in boosting supply. Stewart Baseley, the Home Builders Federation Executive Chairman, said in 2014 that “The Help to Buy Equity Loan scheme is supporting demand for new build homes – and if buyers can buy, builders can build.”

The critics of Help to Buy do have some valid concerns, but I don’t believe that the answer is to stop the scheme. And the rumours that surrounded that last Autumn Budget were concerning, not least for taxpayers who have millions invested in equity across the country. This is not a debate that will go away, and will undoubtedly rear its head again in the spring and again next autumn. My analysis: it would be a more sensible option to extend the scheme.

Figures show an unbalanced market. Average prices for new properties have grown 15 per cent faster than for older homes since Help to Buy was introduced. If property prices for new builds continue to grow, we know there is always a risk of negative equity issues in the future. Many Help to Buy owners have built up equity in their homes as prices have risen, but that is far from a given.

In recent years, a clear line has divided the property market into two groups, and the trend is likely to continue if the current norm continues. The second-hand market continues to be hampered by a lack of supply, with the number of properties on estate agents’ books hovering just above a record low.

Extending Help to Buy to second properties would see more stimulation in the whole market and unquestionably see a quick and notable rise in established properties selling. Importantly, though, developers would still have the guarantee of the Help to Buy scheme, albeit they would no longer have the monopoly on it. They would still have a scheme that guarantees sales and therefore guarantees more building. I suspect it would also mean new builds would likely have to be more competitive.

Rolling out Help to Buy to the second-hand property market would also mean first-time buyers aren’t compelled to buy a new build to get the support they need from the government. Giving them more flexibility. I believe it would see a far more balanced market in the medium-long term.

Help to Buy is one of the flagship successes of the Conservative Government and I believe it will continue. There are always risks, everything in the housing market has cause and effect. It is evidently a nervous period as we work through head winds such as the uncertainty of Brexit. But a bold move could provide fruitful results for the home owning aspirational class the government are desperate to tap into.

We have twice as many shops as we need

The good news is that it means great potential to increase the housing supply. Bold planning changes are needed.

Timpson is a retail chain with over 2,000 shops. Therefore Sir John Timpson, the firm’s Chairman, was a good choice by the Government to investigate the challenges facing our high streets. The Town Centres Expert Panel, led by Sir John, has published its report and recommendations. The Government had already agreed to spend £675 million on a Future High Streets Fund and Town Centre Taskforce.

The panel can have any amount of expertise. But it does not consist of magicians. Sir John acknowledges the realities:

“Across the country, we have seen the changes facing our high streets and town centres due to the changing nature of retail. Town centres are evolving and retail will not return to the high streets that existed 10 or 20 years ago. A combination of internet shopping, the convenience of out of town retailing and an exceptional number of well-established retail formats reaching the end of their commercial life cycle, has led to a marked increase in empty shops and a decline in footfall.”

Sir John told the BBC that we have “about twice as many shops as we need.” Furthermore, demand is still falling. The only shred of encouragement from the Springboard reports is that the rate at which it is falling might have slowed. Rather than footfall being down three per cent a quarter, it’s now declining by 1.5 per cent a quarter. But if the shopkeepers are already struggling to make a profit then it is not much encouragement to say that their number of customers is going down by six per cent a year, rather than 12 per cent.

But before we all get too gloomy there is a most welcome opportunity in us having too many shops. Turn some of the shops into homes. Even the experts have spotted it:

“We have more shops than we need and are short of housing in many parts of the country. It seems to us obvious that part of the retail estate should be converted into residential property where there is housing shortage.”

A huge barrier to achieving this is the planning process. Increasing the housing supply is not just about new buildings. Change of use to housing should be actively encouraged, rather than prohibited. The Government is consulting on making some changes. The report makes the following mild comments:

“Planning provides key tools to enable local communities to shape and deliver their high streets agenda which when used wisely can bring great benefit. The Task Force should encourage action that can make planning decisions simpler, quicker and more aligned to local strategies. We welcome the announcements at Budget of two consultations in respect of planning for town centres. However, we think there is more to do which is why we recommend that the Task Force plays a role in boosting local authority capacity to enable planning to support local areas and stakeholders to design effective and innovative high street and town centre strategies.”

Making it easier to have flats above shops – which I wrote about a year ago – would also help.

So far as the Future High Streets Fund is concerned, the report calls for a “localist” approach to how it is spent:

“There should not be a ‘one size fits all’ list of characteristics in places to fund, as each town has an individual requirement. The types of things that the fund should fund encompasses a number of factors. These could include helping places to improve space management and transport links. Adapting for the future also includes engaging with communities and giving local people, groups and businesses the agency to play an active role in shaping their local places. This can help ensure proposals meet their future needs and changing uses to ensure appropriate local balances between different uses to meet these needs.”

It also adds that the ability to attract co-funding from commercial sources would be a good indicator that value for money has been achieved.

Parking is one routine difficulty for many customers. Perhaps some of the funds could go on reviewing such arrangements – to see if restrictions could be eased and additional parking spaces be provided.

My hunch is that if the Government has a spare £675 million sloshing around, it should be used to cut Business Rates on small shops, cafes and pubs.

With regard to empty shops it says:

“Empty shops can be depressing eyesores that drag down shopping areas. It can be hard for local stakeholders to know who owns these properties, and we would like to see further detail on the announcement at Budget 2018 to pilot a register of empty properties in selected local authorities. Local authorities should use their initiative to encourage landlords and tenants to think innovatively about how to use empty properties. If a deal can’t be struck at the market rent, special terms should be offered to community businesses or other traders with social purpose. The announcement to pilot an “Open Doors” brokerage approach matching landlords of empty properties with community groups looking for space was welcome, and we would like to see this go further across the country and sustained over time. The Task Force could disseminate best practice and learning from the pilot.”

That is reasonable so far as it goes. There will be practical reasons why residential use will not always be viable however much the planning rules are liberalised. But, of course, the real answer is for the market to function properly.

Christmas Eve is a wonderful time for the high street. It’s much too late to rely on the internet for all those last minute presents. Yet during the rest of the year the tills are falling silent for much of the time. Sir John, and his fellow experts, have been honest about the astonishing scale of the mismatch in how our buildings are being used. However, I fear they have been too diplomatic in challenging the Government to make a bold response on an equivalent scale.

LibLink: Olly Grender: The sooner the Renters’ Rights Bill becomes law, the sooner tenants get a fair deal

A bill going through its final parliamentary stages cuts letting agents’ fees for tenants. This is down to the hard work of Lib Dem Peers, mainly Olly Grender. She writes for Politics Home about what this will mean for people: When I first proposed this change in 2016 through a Private Member’s Bill, it was […]

A bill going through its final parliamentary stages cuts letting agents’ fees for tenants. This is down to the hard work of Lib Dem Peers, mainly Olly Grender. She writes for Politics Home about what this will mean for people:

When I first proposed this change in 2016 through a Private Member’s Bill, it was a flat “no” from the Conservative Government.  However, they could not keep ignoring the overwhelming evidence that people on low incomes or benefits who were renting privately were being ripped off with shocking admin fees.

The worst part is that families who are evicted or cannot afford a rent rise are pushed into homelessness by the astronomical up-front admin fees.  The option to move is not feasible, as even when they try to move to a cheaper home, agents were charging both landlord and tenant these up-front fees. With homelessness continuing to rise, and the leading cause being the end of a private rented sector tenancy, it is clear reform is needed – and fast. This is why this Bill is so vitally important. The double dip with both landlord and tenant being charged these extortionate fees will soon be a thing of the past and this change in the law cannot come soon enough.

Often the argument from the industry was that this was an unworkable model but there are many lettings agencies who have already banned admin fees and got ahead of the law.  Their success suggests that it is possible to scrap fees and run a sustainable letting agency.  After all, it is the landlords who are the customer, who can shop around and find the best deal, not the tenant who is desperate to find somewhere decent to live, near work and schools with a decent landlord.

There will be also be other fundamental changes brought in by this Bill.  Deposit for rent is now 5 weeks instead of 6 a significant difference of on average £150 – peanuts to your renting Russian Oligarch, but the difference between food on the plates or nothing for those on low incomes.

The final change Olly secured was greater transparency if a deposit is not returned.

You can read her whole article here. 

* Newshound: bringing you the best Lib Dem commentary published in print or online.

John Moss: The next Mayor of London needs to back redevelopment of council estates, to get the new homes we need

Bold plans could see 100,000 extra properties. It would also mean an improved quality of housing for existing tenants.

Cllr John Moss is the Conservative Policy Forum “Champion” for the delivery of affordable housing, a Councillor in Waltham Forest, and the Chairman of an Almshouses Charity.

The property agent, Savills, and the think-tank, Create Streets, have calculated that across London, councils could rebuild 100,000 council homes and add another 100,000 more homes in mid-rise “London vernacular” streets. This requires about half of London’s larger council estates to be redeveloped.

The current Mayor has offered small amounts of money to support this.  However, he has also put in a requirement for a ballot and these schemes are often difficult to get this going because councils almost always only look at individual estates. That makes it hard to create a timeline of decant, demolish, rebuild and re-house without adding considerably to the cost of the project. Councils need to think bigger. They need to look at this as something like that game where you have eight tiles in a block with nine squares and where you move them around to create a whole new picture.

For the eight tiles, think eight different council estates, possibly not even in the same Borough, but close enough to allow residents to see them as “local”. The key of course is finding the empty square to allow the first move to be made.

So perhaps the Mayor should run a competition open to individual councils or groups of councils, challenging them to identify 5,000 homes across their boroughs which can be demolished and replaced with 10,000 homes?  In return, the Mayor could offer to fund the rent on, say, 200 homes for the people who need to move out first to create the “empty square”.

If the net cost of renting those homes was £500 a month, then it would cost just £3,000,000 to move people off site for two and half years. Plenty of time to get a first phase built to allow them to return.

If 400 homes got built in that phase, the first movers can return and the next batch of 200 households can move straight into their new homes, releasing the next phase. Each phase after that would see 200 movers and 200 new households accommodated. And there is no reason this could not be scaled up and happen across multiple sites.

By opening up the first empty square, the whole process can get going.  From there it just rolls on and the Mayor could even get their initial investment back from future Right to Buy sales on the re-developed estates.

With the lifting of the debt cap, there is a real appetite in councils to build more homes. Any Conservative Mayor ought to be proud to support that and it would demonstrate a real commitment to helping those who often suffer the worst housing conditions. It would be a fine legacy to say they had improved the quality of housing for existing tenants and created double the number of council homes that were there before.