The government’s effort to get housebuilders to produce more homes has been like a man trying to herd cats by shouting into a megaphone. Now it’s looking for more effective tactics. In her first interview since joining the Cabinet, the housing minister tells Stuart Macdonald what they are.
Yvette Cooper knows that housing has been “rising up the political agenda” for all her four years as minister for housing and planning. But after it was second on the agenda at prime minister Brown’s first Cabinet, we can say it has finally risen. As has the minister responsible for it: Cooper has joined Ed Balls as half of the first married couple to sit in Cabinet.
There will be no time for sentiment, though. Last month’s housing green paper pledged a 20% increase in housing output, which if it were achieved, would add up to 3 million new homes by 2020. So Cooper has to deliver. To do so, she will need more than a charming smile and her characteristic frankness; she needs to get the housebuilders on her team.
“It’s important that the building industry itself recognises its responsibility to meet that challenge and to expand,” she says in her spacious corner office on the top floor of the communities department’s Eland House. “Many in the development industry have told us that they have the capacity to expand quite significantly but we need to make sure that this is the case.”
A thinly veiled attack on housebuilders’ pride is a fair enough place to start – after all, chief executives love nothing more than to compare the size of their development programmes. But Cooper’s BBC Question Time persona is of a minister who doesn’t venture far from her briefing notes (sample comments: “You have to get the quality as well as the quantity,” and “We need to bring more young people into training”). But it will take more than platitudes to build all those houses.
Above all, she has to deal with the fact that much of the industry blames her for what it sees as a failure to bring enough land to the market. (Another sample comment, this time from a housebuilder: “If the government wants to get the numbers of new homes it’s talking about then it’ll need to simplify the planning system instead of constantly tinkering with it.”) Although well known for her measured approach, this is an issue that seems to have got under Cooper’s skin – and two can play at the blame game.
“I want to look further at making sure developers don’t just sit on land with planning permission,” she says, diving straight into one of the most controversial issues thrown up by the green paper. “At the moment you can lose the planning permission after three years. If you have done a little bit of work to commence the development – and that can just involve putting a spade in the ground – I think that’s probably not enough. Therefore we want to look at ways of requiring more significant investment in the infrastructure of a site in order to be able to keep that planning permission.”
Observers familiar with Cooper’s recent public jousts over housing numbers with the awkward squad of regional assemblies in the South-east and east of England will perhaps recognise this flash of steel. But there’s more: “I think that in the end the private sector has an interest in responding to rising demand. It is a problem, and I think a failure in the market, that we’re not seeing sufficient response to the rising demand for housing.
It is fair that a proportion of planning gain should be captured to support the infrastructure that is needed to make the homes possible in the first place
It is therefore important that both the private sector and the public sector actually respond to that challenge.”
This recalls the bombast of her former boss John Prescott, but Cooper has a more astute grasp of the facts of economic life, particularly when she calls for foreign firms to build more homes in England. “I think that would promote greater competition – we’d like to see more entry into housebuilding and development. If we can learn from the techniques used by companies working abroad and in other parts of Europe where they are currently further ahead of us on environmental standards, it will be good for housing in this country as well.”
One area where the government has succeeded brilliantly in instilling a sense of unity and purpose into the housing industry is in opposition to its planning gain supplement (PGS). It is more than three years since economist Kate Barker suggested it as a means of extracting some of the “windfall gains” conferred by the granting of planning permission. Since then the government has investigated, consulted and is currently investigating some more. The industry is steadfast in its opposition, but Cooper is determined to press ahead if, as the green paper says, the industry does not bring forward alternative proposals.
“We are clear that we need to raise more resources from planning gain. We know that, although some councils do raise a lot of resources through the section 106 process, others don’t. There are all sorts of limitations with the current process. Given the big increase in land value that takes place, it is fair that a proportion of that planning gain should be captured to support the infrastructure that is needed to make the homes possible in the first place.”
When I mention the industry’s opinion of that argument, she responds: “A lot of other approaches aren’t sensitive to the land value and the planning gain increase in the same way. That is why we think there are advantages to a planning gain supplement.”
As our 15 minutes draws to a close, Cooper manages to squeeze in a quick pledge to press ahead with another controversial plan: home information packs. “We’re expecting to roll it out as swiftly as we can.” Then, ever the polite host, Cooper shows me to the door, saying that since Brown took over the “pace of things have just moved incredibly fast”. She will be crossing her fingers that housebuilders can be persuaded to keep up.
Portraits by David Vintiner
For more on the government’s housing drive, search www.building.co.uk/housing