Clive Betts: All parties must sign up to boost home building

WE need to build 250,000 new homes every year, probably for the next 20 or 30 years, if we are to address the housing crisis properly.

I admitted in the Queen’s Speech debate that the government I supported for 13 years did not build enough homes. The problem is that the present Government is building even fewer. On average, year by year, fewer homes are being built under this Government than were built under the previous one.

If we are to get that long-term buy-in to building sufficient homes, it has to be through all-party agreement, because the construction industry cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Another challenge is to train and keep construction workers to deliver the homes we need.

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There is no single silver bullet – we need a range of different measures to provide a range of different homes. We need the volume house builders to build more, of course. That is a challenge for them as well as for the Government. But we also need other forms of building, including constructing houses for social rent.

We cannot simply build houses at 80 per cent of market rent to help everyone in this country. There are people who not only cannot afford to buy, but cannot afford market rents, so we need a social house building programme as part of the total number.

Let me be clear – I support the campaigns of the Local Government Association and of the National Federation of Arms’ Length Management Organisations (Almos) to lift the borrowing cap on local authorities. That could build us at least 60,000 new homes, but that does not go far enough. In this Parliament we have had a 60 per cent cut in the funding for social housing.

Another uncomfortable issue is the right to buy. The Government’s policy envisages a one-for-one replacement. In many parts of the country, such as my constituency, there is no point selling a family home and offering to replace it with a one-bedroom flat. The demand is for family homes.

Like-for-like replacement is what is needed, and even that is not sufficient in some areas. If there is an acute shortage of social housing in particular localities, or there is not the land to replace homes that are sold, we may have to give local authorities the powers to restrict the right to buy.

It is not what anyone wants to hear, but it is about true localism and recognising that there are particular circumstances and particular housing markets where the problems are so difficult that that is what we may have to do. That is something the Select Committee report addressed and the Government dismissed. It is a factor if we are to deal with the acute crisis faced by many people who cannot afford to buy and cannot afford to rent in the private sector.

If we are to build sufficient homes, we all want to see a brownfield-first policy. If we have such a policy, we will have to deal with the question why the proportion of houses built on brownfield sites appears to be declining.

Then we come on to the further challenge: how do we sign up local communities? The principle of the National Planning Policy Framework is to support sustainable development, which is consistent with the local plan, so putting in place local plans is vital. There may be some authorities that are dragging their feet, but there are some that are genuinely struggling to get local plans in place.

One issue that has come up time and again is the assessment of housing need. Many authorities are unclear about how they should do their sums. The planning inspector could come in at the last minute and say that they have got them wrong and that they should go back and start counting again.

Although I am not generally in favour of heavy-handed centralism, should there not be a bit more guidance at the beginning of the process so that local authorities are clear about the numbers they are trying to address, and their local plans are not held up at the last stages?

We must all face up to the fact that over the past 30 years we have had a collective failure to build sufficient homes in this country. If we are to address that collective failure, we need some collective agreement about how we will proceed to build those homes over the next 20 or 30 years.

• Clive Betts is the Labour MP for Sheffield South East and chairman of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. This is an edited version of a speech in Parliament on housing policy.