Control immigration and large areas of British countryside will not need to be destroyed by housebuilding, says UKIP. Nationalist populism at its most simplistic, perhaps, but the party’s anti-development stance is bearing down on politics at a local level
In UKIP land, the housing crisis has a simple answer. Taking his figures from Migration Watch, UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed at the launch of his party’s immigration policy last week that a new home has to be built every seven minutes to accommodate an immigrant.
Tom Curtin, director of planning engagement consultancy Curtin & Co, says the upshot of this thinking is straightforward: “The policy is very simple: if we don’t have any more immigration, we don’t need any more greenfield housing.”
However, while such a solution may look simplistic to a construction audience, they clearly resonate among the wider population. Most recent polls show that UKIP’s share of the vote is holding up at 15%. While down on the one-fifth share being recorded last year, this level of support would still mean that UKIP plays a pivotal role at the general election.
But even without a role in the forthcoming government, it seems that UKIP’s brand of nationalist populism is already having an impact on development, particularly in marginal constituencies such as Thurrock where it has a high level of support. So what are UKIP’s plans to fix Britain’s housing crisis, and does the shattering of traditional politics, in which the party has played an instrumental role south of the border, threaten to undermine housing delivery on a local level?
UKIP is completely opposed to any development on greenfield sites, development on which offers such a potent symbol of the pressures posed by increased population. While the green belt commands the same kind of uncritical devotion from across the party political spectrum, UKIP goes further than its rivals, promising to give residents the right to call local referendums to overturn all major planning decisions for housing developments and out-of-town supermarkets, alongside the party’s other bête noires: wind turbines and solar farms. Residents would have three months to lodge an application for such a referendum.
In addition, UKIP has pledged to axe developers’ right to appeal against local planning decisions. Phil Briscoe, manager director of public affairs agency Bellenden Local, says “Once a scheme is consented there will be a three-month period when local residents can put in a challenge via a referendum: that just puts developers, who may have a consented scheme, into nine to 12 months of uncertainty.”
He believes that the UKIP programme for the built environment boils down to a fundamental hostility to development. “A lot of it is about opposing and stopping things, there
is not much information about how they will encourage development.”
Andrew Martin, a director of rival planning lobbying firm PPS, says: “On planning the Liberal Democrats, the Tories and Labour are united on a commitment to increase housing growth. UKIP are the only ones who are saying it’s a bad thing, but that’s what a lot of people want to hear.”
UKIP’s housing spokesperson Andrew Charamboulos denies that the local referendum policy is anti-development, arguing that it “will provide greater certainty and help build bridges between big developers and local communities”. He adds that UKIP would cut the cost and bureaucracy associated with planning applications by merging planning and building control departments in local authorities. In addition, UKIP would get rid of section 106 agreements. Charamboulos also points to its stance on brownfield development to rebut criticisms that it is anti-construction. The party says that it would build 1 million homes on previously developed land over the next decade, using grants to bring contaminated sites back into use.
Drawing on research by the think tank Civitas, Charalambous claims that there is enough previously developed land to accommodate up to two and a half times as many dwellings. The party says it would provide grants to decontaminate sites. “Brownfield policy can only work if it’s made more attractive than other parallel property investments. Only we will do that. Our aspiration is to make the UK brownfield industry the world leader, generating hundreds of thousands of new jobs and billions for the British economy by using largely our most derelict and dormant land, not transforming our breathtaking landscapes into concrete jungles.”
However, Robin Spencer, a director of the Barton Willmore Planning Partnership, says experience of bringing such sites back into use suggests that UKIP’s policy is “naïve” because of the expense involved in remediating them. “One million homes on brownfield sites is just not going to happen,” he says.
Of course few people look at a UKIP manifesto as a practical programme for government. Even on its current high poll ratings, UKIP is predicted to gain no more than three or four seats, a fraction of the number that the Scottish Nationalists are expected to win. However, by picking up a few percent of the vote in local contests, small parties can tip the balance. Bellenden’s Briscoe believes that the growth of fringe parties, like UKIP and the Greens, means that contests at this year’s general election will be determined much more often by local issues, like controversial planning decisions, than normal.
In places like Thurrock (see box, below), UKIP is leveraging local opposition to controversial development plans in order to increase its support, in a way that is influencing the view of Tory candidates contesting the same seat. Briscoe says: “What’s different this time is that the election is much more localised - every constituency or council is different. We are not looking at a uniform national swing.”
At local government level meanwhile, UKIP has been picking up councillors, although the party has yet to run anything bigger than the Cambridgeshire market town of Ramsey where it took control of the town council four years ago.
Overall, the party has 370 councillors, the biggest share of which (147) sit on county councils. On district councils, which handle development control decisions in the shires, UKIP has just 118 representatives out of a total of nearly 9,000. The party’s biggest pockets of influence are in East Anglia, where the party forms the official opposition on four districts, Great Yarmouth on the Suffolk/Norfolk border, Huntingdonshire and in the Essex districts of Basildon and Castle Point.
In Kent, a plan by Land Securities for 5,000 homes on the Hoo Peninsula became a hot topic in the Rochester and Strood by-election in which Tory defector Mark Reckless switched his stance to oppose the scheme after switching to UKIP. The application was called in by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) last month. Elsewhere in the South-east, UKIP has mounted the Hampshire Against Land Threat campaign to mobilise support in a county, where its support is relatively weak, by capitalising on concerns about greenfield releases.
Curtin says that in most areas the party doesn’t have enough critical mass on any council to have a real influence on planning decisions. However, “that may change after the election,” he suggests.
One likely scenario is that a lot of voters will split their vote for the parliamentary and local government elections which are both taking place on 7 May. Curtin predicts most voters will end up plumping for a mainstream party for their MP, but will be more tempted to opt for a UKIP councillor.
With all but a handful of district and unitary councils up for election, he believes a UKIP surge could result in many more authorities ending up hung with no single party in charge, with areas such as north Kent and south Essex likely to see a strong UKIP performance.
Nick Jones, head of strategic communications at planning consultancy GL Hearn, says UKIP is perceived as a greater threat at the local rather than national level. “Lots of councillors are very worried about the impact of UKIP at local level. All those who are pro-growth will be looking over their shoulders to the UKIP candidates.”
“In areas like Essex, East Anglia and Lincolnshire,” Briscoe says, “where they (UKIP) are jostling for second place, it’s pushing administration parties to be more sensitive to their concerns. When councillors approve a scheme, UKIP will be the first to attack it - it’s certainly making more councillors nervous.”
Jones says Conservative councillors will be particularly prone to such fears, given that they represent the bulk of the rural wards being targeted by UKIP’s anti-development stand.
As the Tory leader of Cambridgeshire council until recently, Martin Curtis has dealt with the UKIP phenomenon at first hand. He says: “If anything is controversial, UKIP will oppose it, which makes it very difficult.”
Lots of councillors are very worried about the impact of UKIP at local level. those who are pro-growth will be looking over their shoulders to the UKIP candidates
Nick Jones, CL Hearn
Curtis, who recently joined Curtin & Co, says increased UKIP representation on local councils will lead to more planning appeals. However, developers have recently been finding a frostier reception at the DCLG when they seek to appeal local planning decisions. There has been a widely observed change of tone at DCLG since Nick Boles, who opened up a debate on whether the green belt should continue to be a sacred cow, was moved from the planning brief last July.
Following the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2013, DCLG appeared to take a fairly pro-development approach to greenfield schemes, by approving a number of high-profile schemes. However, Boles’ replacement, Brandon Lewis, who faces a tough fight to hold his Great Yarmouth constituency in the face of a strong UKIP challenge, seems to be less keen to let rip. This was most apparent in the swift slap down that he administered to the results of the urban extension competition sponsored by Boles’ ally Lord Wolfson last year. Barton Willmore’s Spencer is one of those who sees a link between the DCLG’s watered down stance on greenfield development and the imminent general election.
A symptom of this greater sensitivity to grassroots Tory concerns can be seen in a string of decisions where neighbourhood plans have trumped supposedly more heavyweight local plans, in those cases where the latter have not passed through all of the necessary procedural hoops. Roger Humber, ex-chief executive of the Home Builders Association, says the last three to four months has seen emphasis on neighbourhood planning at DCLG. “A year ago it was clear that the priority was meeting strategic housing needs and if that didn’t fit with the neighbourhood plan, then tough. Now if the neighbourhood plan is not even at a very advanced stage, it might trump a shortfall on five year [housing] supply.”
Humber argues that neighbourhood plans are the best tool that nimbies have possessed for decades. While neighbourhood plans are required to meet local plan housing targets as a minimum, around half of local authorities still do not have plans in place, giving locals a chance to get plans with low housing numbers approved.
Humber says: “Underneath the radar the government has completely subverted its own NPPF. If the government is remotely serious about involving housing delivery, you can’t allow this kind of disruption.”
Barton Willmore’s Shepherd agrees: “We hope that the DCLG’s stance will soften after the election, because otherwise we are not going to end up with the numbers we need and there will be absolute chaos.”
But perhaps communities secretary Eric Pickles’ team should take greater heed of this week’s British Social Attitudes survey, which found that public support for new homes in their locality had doubled in the last five years. A recent YouGov poll also showed that housing ranked third at 19% in the list of voter priorities.
Curtis says: “Public opinion is moving slowly but surely in favour of more development - people are seeing that the dream of home ownership is drifting further and further away. I believe that housing will be near the top of the political agenda at the general election.”
The industry will just have to hope that positive messages don’t get drowned by the din of nimby opposition.
Thurrock: housing becomes an election battleground
On the night of 7 May, Thurrock will be one of the most keenly watched constituencies by the election pundits. The constituency, which includes the Tilbury docks, has been safely Labour for most of the post-war period. However, in 2010, Jackie Doyle-Price captured it for the Conservatives, albeit by just 92 votes.
And since the last election the contest has become a three-way marginal. UKIP has put one of its highest profile candidates, the party’s 29-year old former director of policy and MEP Tim Aker (pictured), who also has a seat on Thurrock council. Recent polls show that UKIP is leading the race in the constituency, although Labour’s candidate Polly Billington is confident about her chances.
Housing is shaping up as an important election issue in Thurrock, which was identified as a key area for delivering new homes under the last Labour government’s Thames Gateway plans. A recent report showed that Thurrock is the most popular choice of area for Londoners moving out of the capital.
The Labour-run council’s local plan provides for an extra 20,000 homes over the next decade.The most recent cause celebre in the borough has been a green belt site in the village of Aveley where developer Westview Properties submitted plans for 500 homes on a former sports club. The Labour council backed the application saying the borough needed housing, but Aker and Doyle-Price competed to oppose it. The application was subsequently called in by the communities secretary, who ruled in December against the plans.
However, a spokesperson for Billington is unapologetic about the Labour party’s pro-housing stance, saying: “We need more good, affordable housing because there are a lot of young people who can’t move out.”