Who would have thought the first act of the New Year would be to part-centralise the housing industry?by Jay Elwes / January 4, 2016 / Leave a comment
Welcome to the opening political move of 2016: it’s housing.
Britain needs to build more homes and Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer who now chairs the government’s National Infrastructure Commission, set out the extent of Britain’s housing problem in a recent Prospect essay.
Today the government has announced how it intends to provide some of these new homes. Through a process of what it calls “Direct Commissioning,” government will pay private companies to build affordable “starter” homes on government land, using sites that already have planning permission.
The first site is to the north of London, where the government will pay for the construction of “up to” 13,000 homes. Other locations that can expect the “Direct Commissioning” treatment include Dover, Cambridgeshire, Chichester and Gosport.
The government calls it “ground-breaking”, and “a radical new policy shift, not used on this scale since Thatcher and Heseltine started the Docklands.” It’s a somewhat grandiose comparison, seeing as the aim is to put up a mere 60,000 homes under the scheme. The Labour Party has dismissed it as insufficient, saying that the announcement is nothing but a rehash of plans set out by government last year.
In terms of numbers of homes, Labour are correct. But the government’s announcement marks an intriguing systemic change in Britain’s appalling planning system. The current arrangement is a bureaucratic nightmare, one that is clogged with delays, opportunities for challenge and punctuated by the creation and submission of extensive plans by developers to local authorities, and by local authorities to central government. It’s a mess.
Today’s announcement could, in some cases, short-circuit that failing system. The need for rounds of consultation and the submission of plans up the food chain is gone. Now, government is giving itself the right to create homes by decree.
This form of “fiat housing,” seems at odds with the government’s stated intention to devolve more power to the local level—Brandon Lewis, the Housing Minister told me in September that he regarded the devolution of planning oversight as one of the Coalition Government’s greatest achievements.
But today’s announcement rescinds some of those devolved powers. Instead of leaving councils to develop their own “Local Plans,”…