At the Labour Conference both Hilary Benn, Shadow CLG Secretary, and Ed Miliband, both promised massive new house-building, up to 200,000 new homes a year by the end of the parliament.
Benn said ” … we will give communities, as Sir Michael Lyons’ report will recommend, the powers they need to tackle land banking; put together the sites; get the design right; put in the infrastructure; and work with small and medium-size and large builders to build the homes that local people need where local people want.
And Conference, we’ll work with councils so that they can build more council houses.”
Ed Miliband in his very long speech yesterday committed Labour to build the houses the country needs, which is a fairly thin promise, but I understand this is due to the fact that the Lyons report has been delayed. He did promise to double the number of first time buyers getting a house. If this was double from now, it would mean a massive 60,000 first time buyers a year, as pointed out in the guardian. There was no similar commitment to the actual number, or proportion, of new council or social housing in the 200,000 figure.
Going back to Benn’s suggestions of giving communities the powers to “put in the infrastructure”, I don’t think this means we all roll up our sleeves and start digging trenches for superfast broadband. It sounds more like giving local councils more powers to require developments that have the infrastructure integrated into the master plan, rather than having piecemeal housing developments, which make an insufficient contribution towards the delivery of that infrastructure, at some unspecified point afterwards.
It could mean Labour return to the new town concept, which they unsucessfully tried to camouflage last time as Ecotowns. They didn’t got down well, despite having some very powerful concepts, such as a high proportion of green space and nature areas. This Government has been vaguely luke warm on Garden Cities, though none have actually come forward. Will MiliLabour actually deliver, if they get in?
As ever with housing, the most important choice is Location Location Location. Even if a development is superbly well masterplanned, all the infrastructure is factored in and paid for up front, the wrong location can still spell disaster. Take Lodge Hill for example. On paper, building 5000 homes, along with GP surgeries, two new primary schools, etc etc sounds ideal. But plonk all that on a 350ha SSSI, with the largest Nightingale population in England and one of England’s largest areas of surviving unimproved wildflower grassland – and you’ve got the wrong place.
Where is the right place?
As with Lodge Hill, all too often, the places housing gets built is dictated by developers buying options to develop private land. This is in part influenced by local plans identifying suitable places for houses to be built (the SHLAA process) – but this process is again heavily influenced by developers. Until this is changed to enable local communities to seriously influence where new housing goes in their area, problems will continue to arise.
Inevitably with such a dramatic change of land-use to housing land, their will be losses of biodiversity, history and community values. How will these be dealt with – will Labour also continue to develop the biodiversity offsetting approach beloved of Owen Paterson? Let us hope not.
Personally I think it makes sense for large scale housing development to take place as new towns or large new extensions to existing towns, such that they benefit from existing transport infrastructure. Placing a new town in a previously undeveloped area with poor transport links requires so much more infrastructure to connect it to other places where people will work and travel for other reasons. It made sense to put Milton Keynes on an existing major train line, for example.
Taking the area of Lodge Hill as an example, building 200,000 homes a year means building on 40 Lodge Hills – each at around 300ha. That is actually only 12000ha a year.
I have already suggested one place which could be used – bungalow-land.
12000ha a year is really not very much land – there is over 9 million hectares of farmland in England, much of it devoid of any wildlife interest, with its above ground historic features long since swept away. Its not as though we need all of it to feed the world.
Another advantage of developing farmland is that a tax on land value uplift could generate billions of pounds to spend on the infrastructure needed in new and existing towns and cities, including the NHS.