Posted by: Jules Birch27/01/2011
Complaints of resurgent nimbyism in the wake of the end of housebuilding targets and doubts about the effectiveness of the new homes bonus are nothing new - but this time they come from a Conservative MP.
Richard Harrington, a developer before he became MP for Watford last year, a told a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday that the government should not replace an obsession with centralism with an obsession with localism as the only way to get new homes.
Watford is not just close to the Welwyn Hatfield constituency of Grant Shapps - it’s also the town where the housing minister was born and brought up.
And Harrington had a message for his neighbour: ‘Although I fully support the Localism Bill and its core values of local people and their representatives being responsible for their own actions, I believe that in respect of planning, it could significantly adversely affect the supply of land for housing. If the incentives on offer do not outweigh the anti-development sentiments of residents and their elected representatives, we are in real trouble.’
He said the Bill failed to address the serious issue that while 80% of people believe Britain needs to build more housing for sale and rent, only 50% said they would welcome it in their immediate neighbourhood.
While regional spatial strategies had not worked, evidence of nimbyism had emerged since they were scrapped with areas like Bath and North Somerset cutting the number of new homes to be built by half.
Abolition of the strategies and targets has been one of the most popular coalition policies on the Tory backbenches - and one of the few that appeared in both the Conservative and Lib Dem manifestoes - but Harrington said they had at least set aspirations.
The problem was there was always a presumption against development locally, with councillors elected on anti-development platforms, and targets reduced ‘all over the place’.
He went on: ‘If a development of new houses is opposed by local residents, local councillors elected on a non-development ticket are unlikely to take action on an issue that might work against them at election time. I do not believe that five or six years of council tax will be a convincing enough reward. I say that not to discount the scheme but to raise obvious concerns to ministers that other weapons, tools and policies might be needed as well.’
The bonus might work on large flagship schemes like one cited by housing minister Grant Shapps in his Welwyn Hatfield constituency, but on smaller sites elsewhere it would not make sufficient difference.
Harrington called for a back-up plan to ensure that development continues. ‘We have to carefully monitor the incentives that we are introducing, such as the new homes bonus, to ensure that they in fact do what they are intended to do. If development targets continue to be halved by local authorities, surely we have to consider other ways to encourage the increase of supply that we all believe necessary. It would be much better if the powers were put in place now, rather than when the problem manifests itself, when it might be too late.’
And he went on: ‘I support localism and I applaud the government’s efforts to introduce it throughout the country, but my central argument, which I hope the minister will accept, is that it must be part of a balanced package. We must avoid any trap; for the last government it was their obsession with centralism—the Stalinism that I mentioned before—but that must not be replaced by a similar obsession with localism as the only way to obtain housing supply.’
Responding to the debate, he said that the new homes bonus was ‘potentially an incredibly powerful incentive’ but was ‘not intended to be the be-all and end-all’. Other mechanisms like action to free up mortgage lending and planning reform would help increase supply.
‘The changes will create a new attitude towards planning. It will not be us against them—the developer against the local community. It will be people working together to try to improve their local communities through neighbourhood plans.’
It certainly didn’t seem like he was admitting to the need for a Plan B, and he shrugged off the suggestion from his Labour shadow Alison Seabeck that: ‘We have noticed, housing experts have noticed and local government leaders have noticed—we have therefore now been told that Downing street has noticed—that the shine is coming off the minister’s policies.’
In the meantime though, the voices of the nimbys are growing louder in the shires. To take just one example, take a look at this story from the Northampton Chronicle last week.
‘Outrage at latest plans for 21,000 new homes in the county,’ says the headline. Except that 21,000 is half what was proposed in 2009 - a fact rather given away by the ‘40,000 houses is planning madness’ placards carried by protesters in the old photo used with the story.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context