Those who think that Britain’s housing crisis can be solved by central government planning and sweeping blueprints are wrong. I am calling for local decision-making to put councils – and crucially, the people they represent – in charge.
The simple truth is that Britain needs more homes. While our economy has become over-reliant on rising house prices for economic growth, those struggling to get on the housing ladder have been left behind.
With the average home now costing over seven times the average wage (more than double the ratio in the 1990s), is it any wonder that home ownership is at a 30-year low? Rough sleeping today has more than doubled since the Conservatives came to power and new social housing starts are at an all-time low.
While the Government is keen on bold pledges to build 300,000 new homes a year, after eight years of Conservative failure on the housing market I question whether we will see deeds to match their words.
Yet both parties are falling into a serious trap. Grand national strategies are a good way to win headlines, as any politician knows. However, they do not properly engage with the needs of individual communities and neighbourhoods.
Today, as the Chancellor sets out his Spring Statement, I am tabling the Housing and Planning (Local Decision-Making) Bill to seek key changes in planning law.
My Bill would seek to remove the Communities Secretary’s ability to overrule local councils in planning developments. Crucially, however, it would extend the powers of local councils to establish their own requirements for developments in their area, including specifying the types of housing needed, and the proportion of affordable and social housing available.
By empowering communities, I believe my Bill will make it much easier to give local people the housing they need.
The simple fact is that housing pressures vary from area to area. In major cities, new flats are springing up, only for around one in five to be purchased as investments by absent overseas speculators. In the Yorkshire Dales, entire villages have become unaffordable for lifelong residents because of properties being snapped up as second homes for use by holidaymakers just a few weeks of the year.
In my own constituency, while developers have turned hefty profits on five-bedroom homes, there has been a distinct lack of smaller starter homes for first-time buyers and young families. New developments often come with inadequate investment in expanding local schools and healthcare facilities, or improving the road network so it can safely cope with additional traffic.
Given these differing pressures, why should central government be able to overrule local councils? Since being appointed in 2016, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has overruled local councils on multiple occasions, including approving 860 new homes in Rugby against the wishes of the local council.
We already have some experience of local communities becoming involved through the Localism Act 2011. Through this, parish councils and community groups come together in neighbourhood forums to formulate Neighbourhood Development Plans and Orders.
My experience of these groups is that they know far better than anyone else what works for their area, and can help grease the wheels for appropriate new housing starts. Deepening and extending these powers will allow housing supply to match the needs of every community. Making sure that national government cannot overrule or undermine local decision-making must be at the core of that approach.
The truth is that while developers are always focussed on profit margins and the bottom line, councils and communities care deeply about life in their area. Social and affordable housing might not always yield high returns for developers, but they are essential if our housing market is to function.
Local decision-making is the way to get our housing market moving. I am calling on the Government to give councils the powers they need to serve their communities.
John Mann is the Labour MP for Bassetlaw.