As we now enter the real start of the general election campaign, the political parties are beginning to increase their commitments to the construction of a significant number of new homes. We have another few weeks where the coalition can use the Whitehall machine then “purdah” kicks in and they are cast out to operate only with their party machines. At that point our civil servants must avoid any actions that favour or criticise any party.
Over most of the last decade all parts of the industry, architects, surveyors, builders, banks, brokers and housing charities have all been unified in talking about the need for many more houses to be built. The gap between household formation and the construction of new properties has gradually escalated. Indeed although the announcement of the “Ashford” new town is extremely welcome, it is rumoured that it will only add back the houses to be demolished to deliver HS2. It is astonishing that despite the early promises from the coalition to wipe away the delays in the planning process and get Britain building again, we enter this election campaign with housing starts little better than when Labour left office. Whilst the Help to Buy initiatives have cleared out builder pipelines we are still constrained by the lack of skilled trades and raw materials.
As we approach manifesto season each party has been doing their best to trump the other with ever higher ambitions to build more houses. What remains lacking in all these commitments is the “how”. Without a clear strategy to re-engage local authorities, any plans depend on housing associations and the private sector. It has to be said that the skills to build within local authorities have been decimated over the last decade by cuts in their funding and a focus on softer issues. So any incoming government will be focussed on the speculative builder community who are driven by their shareholders and profit maximisation to grow the outputs. This by any reasonable argument is going to take years.
In arriving at any target, there has to be another measure of needing to build these where there is demand. Towns such as Milton Keynes that have boomed over 50 years, are off the back of being close to the M1 Motorway, an excellent local road and shopping infrastructure that was laid down years ago and is also on the West Coast mainline railway. This has given employers confidence to site there and grow their businesses with certainty about housing and quality of life. Houses need to be close to jobs and transport links. It scares me to think that we actually need to create 4 more developments of the type and size of Milton Keynes south of the line from the Humber to the Wash in order to actually deliver what is required over the next twenty years as the UK population threatens to escalate towards 80 million people.
As some commentators consider whether we should limit immigration as it has a cost there is another perspective as we struggle to understand the demographics of our population. As we all live longer and are dependent on a stratospheric social care budget, it will only be with a much larger workforce paying taxes that the books can be made to balance. These are tough decisions that should be more openly debated as we have our occasional ability to influence those who represent us in the mother of all Parliaments.
The plea has to be for realistic and workable targets developed with the industry and for longer than any fixed term government. The liberation of planning is one issue, but strategies that last for decades rather than the tactical sticking plaster such as Help to Buy is what is required. We need proper plans that give a vision that has not been seen for decades. Clear availability of land with the infrastructure that is needed alongside it is the only way that housing numbers will happen at the level required.