Photo by Cultura RM Exclusive/Leon Sosra
Artillery Row

Where are my children going to live?

The government owes us answers

Like many parents across the country, I often find myself asking, “Where will my children live?” As housebuilding slumps — now projected to fall to its lowest level since the Second World War — I’m increasingly concerned.

We’ve had five housing ministers in the last two years

It is abundantly clear that successive governments, no matter the party, have failed to build enough homes. According to the Centre for Cities, 4.3 million homes are missing from the national housing market — a backlog that would take half a century to fill even if we realise the Government’s 2019 manifesto pledge, which has subsequently been downgraded, to build 300,000 homes a year. This is a sad indictment of a country claiming to be a property-owning democracy.

We’ve had five housing ministers in the last two years, which suggests the issue isn’t even on the Government’s agenda. Such is the degree of churn that an observer might think that politicians would sooner hold a hand grenade than the housing brief. Amidst the swirl of ministers, there’s been one constant: a willingness to pander to backbench NIMBYism, allowing much-needed development to be blocked in the belief that doing so is a vote winner.

From Right to Buy through to population growth, those looking for the source of the shortfall have pointed their fingers in various directions. Often missing from the discussion is the UK’s archaic planning system, which is simply not fit for purpose. It functions well for those altering windows, erecting fences or making small extensions, but when local authorities are faced with applications for new flats or houses, their natural instinct to block development kicks in.

To remedy matters, Michael Gove recently announced plans to reform Permitted Development Rules (PDRs) to spur home extensions and the conversion of shops into houses. The changes, if Gove is to be believed, will make sure the country “can regenerate, build and grow”.

Sadly, this conjures up a feeling of déjà vu. The Government announced in 2020 that new PDRs would “deliver much-needed new homes” by permitting two extra storeys on existing blocks of flats without planning permission, subject to a strict criteria, in order to provide new homes where people want them (in the towns). Unfortunately, this hasn’t worked. I believe that approximately only 10 per cent of applications for this have been approved.

The Government should consider what’s right, not what is popular

This is based on a High Court ruling on permitted development rights — overlooked by the architects of the latest announcement — allowing councils to consider applications in context in their assessment, including aesthetic criteria like the height of surrounding buildings. This effectively gives local authorities carte blanche to block permitted development on purely subjective grounds, even if all stipulated criteria are met. This latest policy will bump into the same stonewall — the local council — and very little will be built.

Why is the Government introducing new legislation for more permitted development and not fixing the existing issue? It’s happy to make triumphant announcements that do precisely nothing so that it appears to solve the issue whilst keeping voters happy. That’s why, like many ministers before him, Gove has merely paid lip service to the problem whilst serving another bland salad of soundbites without sustenance.

Things could have been different. The Government had the opportunity to set the country on another course when, in 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced a bold Planning Bill, having previously committed himself to the “most radical” set of reforms since WWII. Defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election — presented as NIMBYs striking back in Tory heartlands — saw the Bill quietly shelved and the opportunity missed. Obviously, what is needed is an overhaul of our antiquated planning rules.

Rather than fixing the planning system, the government chose to make an announcement under the auspices of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, where it was mooted to give neighbours the powers to hold mini-referenda on proposed development. Gove claims the measure will boost housebuilding, which is a ludicrous assumption. If you give this power to everybody, nothing will be built at all because “nobody wants building work on their own street”. The Government should consider its duty to do what’s right, not what is popular.

Perhaps the sharpest analysis of the Government’s housebuilding prospects comes, surprisingly, from the Government itself. At the end of last year Michael Gove — the man who wishes to regenerate and build — quietly watered down the government’s target to build 300,000 new homes annually by 2025. Instead, he declared the number to be purely “advisory, which takes the pressure off local authorities to meet targets, meaning they won’t consider applications with a presumption in favour of development. This is surely a sign that the Government has given up on housebuilding and, with it, is turning its back on young people.

We need to overhaul our broken planning system. Until we do, I can but keep asking, where exactly are my children going to live?

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