The new communities secretary has made some encouraging noises about addressing the UK’s need for more homes. But the task that lies ahead of him is neither small, nor simple
The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP has been elevated to the position of secretary of state for communities and local government, taking over from Eric Pickles in David Cameron’s all-new, all-Conservative cabinet. The challenges that Clark faces are significant. In particular, the crisis in housebuilding was central to the election campaigns of all the major parties and it remains an issue of great importance to the public. Mr Clark will find that the question of how to tackle that problem is not an easy one to answer.
Greg Clark is known as the orchestrator of localism, which ended top-down housing targets, and brought in neighbourhood plans, but he was also instrumental in the development of the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which is noted as one of the biggest pro-development shifts in planning policy for a generation. Will Clark have other major changes or new initiatives in mind?
Reacting to Clark’s appointment, David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation said he wanted to work with Mr Clark on “bold solutions to end the housing crisis within a generation.” This should include, he said, a long term plan to be published within the first year of parliament detailing “how the 245,000 new homes we need each year, including 80,000 affordable homes, will be built.”
With a high level of expectation from the industry, and the issue of housing supply prominent on the news agenda, what will Greg Clark decide to do?
So with this level of expectation, and with the issue of housing supply prominent on the news agenda, what will Clark decide to do? Given the need for homes both in cities and rural areas, will he be working hard with local authorities to ensure that they deliver the required housing numbers? Should he insist that their five-year land supply figures are brought up to date? More controversially, will he enter into the debate on the release of green belt land, now that it is within his gift to tackle this thorny issue head on? A pledge to protect the green belt introduced by the previous Tory-Lib Dem coalition may make this a very difficult task.
What Clark really needs to crack is how to formulate housing policy so that both national and local government work to boost the number of houses being built. While localism is working in terms of getting buy-in to planning applications at an early stage, it can fall short in its ability to put pressure on local communities to compromise their ideals, especially where they are resistant to building on the edge of their towns and cities. This could be resolved if the new government brings national housing targets down to a regional level and sets local authorities their own binding housebuilding targets. This will give Clark backing to appeal decisions to make sure that housing numbers are achieved.
To run alongside this we need early investment in infrastructure, and for this to happen we must identify who is responsible for its delivery. If local authorities, rather than developers, are responsible then Clark must work out how they will be able to do this within the limited funds that are available, collecting contributions towards common infrastructure while continuing to deliver their five-year land supply. Equally, he must determine how the local authority will be monitored on its delivery and performance.
So, how likely is this to be achieved? The government has already announced a few measures that may help facilitate this housing delivery. There will be a new requirement to register brownfield land, on which there will be a presumption in favour of development.
And the government has announced that money raised from right to buy for affordable housing tenants will be used to reinvest in building more homes.
In addition to the policies announced so far, Clark’s intentions, at least historically, seem to be favourable to the push for more homes. In a 2011 Huffington Post article, written when he was minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government, he wrote: “We need to be clear-sighted about the need for growth. We need more houses: for young people; for families; and for older people living – thankfully – longer than they ever have before.”
He emphasised the issue of population growth and criticised the housebuilding record of the previous government, under whom the number of new homes built fell to a lower level than in any year in our peacetime history since 1924. He made the case for a strong link between a housing shortage and overcrowding, homelessness and poverty, driven by high rents and house prices.
These are encouraging words, but that was then, and this is now - we are in a very different situation. The Rt Hon Greg Clark has a huge task ahead and I for one look forward to seeing how he is going to deliver the tools we all need to meet the growing demand for new houses.
Debbie Aplin is managing director of Crest Nicholson Regeneration