In hindsight, Yvette Cooper probably wishes she’d waited for a break in the weather before launching her green paper.
So, instead of having a balanced discussion of what is likely to be an important development in housing policy, everybody is talking about the dangers of building on flood plains. Before we follow suit, we should take a moment to welcome many of the government’s proposals.
The paper sets a series of carrots and sticks intended to help raise housing supply by a third. This won’t be easy. For one thing, output from the private sector depends on what ends up in the planning bill and the state of the housing market – and here it’s worrying that Experian is forecasting a fall in the private sector’s growth rate as interest rates bite.
That said, plans to release public land, give councils more freedom to build and, of course, channel £8bn into social housing are clear signs that the government is serious about tackling affordability. For too long it has relied on section 106 agreements to increase supply. Let’s just hope councils’ special purpose vehicles are simpler to set up than local education partnerships were.
It will also be vital to persuade housing associations to leverage their assets, since that £8bn will not by itself deliver the desired 45,000 yearly uplift in affordable homes. Proposals to speed up development by rescinding planning permission for undeveloped schemes won’t go down well with housebuilders, but it’s a fair price to pay for the likely dropping of the planning gain supplement. Four alternatives to this are on the menu, and it would be good if the industry could agree on which is best. The idea of opening up eco-town competition to developers as well as local authorities is another good move.
But given that we’re in the midst of the worst flooding in modern history, it is inevitable that Cooper should have been asked about the question of building on flood plains. She was right to say housing should be situated on them, otherwise we couldn’t build housing in London, let alone the Thames Gateway. On the other hand, with the misery that floods bring fresh in our minds, we need to be confident that new developments will not be periodically submerged under four feet of filthy water.
What we don’t need is a kneejerk reaction. Since December, 2006 the Environment Agency (EA) has been given more power to veto development in high risk areas. Now it needs to take overall charge of flood risk and co-ordinate our response to it. At the moment, it controls flood defences along rivers and coasts, but Hull was undone by inadequate drainage, for which water companies and councils are vaguely responsible. But if the EA does take on that role, the recent cuts to its budget must also be reversed. Otherwise it won’t have the staff to process the planning applications – and the government will simply create another bureaucratic obstacle to its own policy.
Denise Chevin, editor