Politicians Promises. Not Exactly Safe as Houses

Oct 16, 2014

Opinion article by Russell Quirk, CEO of emoov.co.uk; borough councillor and former Chairman of Planning at Brentwood Borough Council.

There must be an election soon because all of a sudden, leading politicians are making promises on housing.

Just two weeks ago, David Cameron pledged to provide 100,000 homes at a subsidy to first time buyers under 40. He might want to look at age discrimination legislation before he pushes this across the floor of the Commons, but it was nonetheless the opening shot in the 2015 election campaign where this much manipulated issue is concerned.

In the street battle that now ensues, Ed Miliband, in order to counter this, has just announced that he will force developers to give first refusal to local first time buyers on up to 50% of what they build by way of a mechanism he calls ‘Housing Growth Areas’. It’s as yet unclear how the army of clip-board carriers that will have to police this edict will operate or, indeed, how much they will cost and where that budget comes from. Local councils presumably, as if there were not enough strain on them already financially.

But in all the inevitable ‘my policy is better than yours’ shouting that we will now contend with in the coming months is this – Yet more promises of ‘x’ amount of new houses to be built.

Ed, in his announcement today, pledges ‘200,000 homes per year by 2020’. Yet the reality is that there have only been four years since 1990 when such levels have actually been achieved (between 2004 and 2008). And, of course, no meat on the bone is imparted in so far as HOW these aspirations will be achieved. At all.

As a property guy, I’m nauseous at the easy statements and the subsequent failures that we see on this important subject year after year, politician after politician. It’ll take more than an election leaflet to provide enough homes for a population that is living longer, increasing in size by way of immigration and that has a growing rate of single occupiers (over 20%).

It needs a plan and the guts to tackle nimbyism and to appropriately re-designate some elements of our green belt that are not really green belt at all. Then, a proper shake up of our lazy planning system that is still too heavily interfered with by Government yet has meant LESS houses being built since 2010 when Eric Pickles took over the brief, not more. Again, despite his guarantees of improvement.

Local authorities should be incentivised further to identify the swathes of their own publicly owned land that can be easily developed for residential use yet languishes, ignored. I know this can be done because I’m addressing it in Brentwood and have recently provided 52 homes on two small, council owned sites that had sat empty under various previous council administrations for years and years.

Serving our growing population with a viable methodology and a genuine ambition to provide much needed accommodation of all types (rental, social too) rather than just spouting vote-seeking chat is what we need to hear from our political elite.

House building has seen a marked decline since the 1970’s and all previous Governments can shoulder that blame. In 1979 Labour handed over a record of 321,000 properties built in each of its years in power. In 1997, the Conservatives passed the baton at 208,000 homes per annum. 2010, when Gordon Brown threw the keys to Downing Street to David Cameron, just 189,000 houses had been built in each year that his party presided. Now, a pitiful 139,000 units are what passes as the most up to date achievement.

Funnily enough, we’ve seen a similar percentage reduction in the number of people that vote over the years. Not a coincidence, I’m sure.