The ODPM’s plans for housebuilding have so far been disastrous, says Roger Humber
Like David Willetts, David Miliband is rumoured to have a multiplicity of brains. He is clearly the ODPM’s ideas man, so I have got just the big idea he needs. No more big ideas, please. Look at the ones we’ve had so far.
PPG3 was acclaimed by environmentalists but its introduction in 2000 was responsible for reducing housebuilding to its lowest level since 1924. The ODPM’s proposals for reforming it to bring forward more land will only slow housebuilding further. It proposes that where shortages of land to meet planned rates of build are identified, the local plan should be revised. However, we have barely begun to see the first of the new-style core development plan documents emerge, let alone any with land allocated in them.
The new planning system – the 2004 act – is, as I predicted, creating a hiatus in the supply of allocated land, as local development documents replace local plans and unitary development plans.
These require endless public consultations, environmental statements and a raft of public inquiries that may overwhelm the inspectorate.
The regional spatial strategies are giving the nimbys of the South-east a field day at John Prescott’s expense. Not only are they producing plans that far undershoot what Prescott wants, but they are inserting policies that require councils to delay even that level of development if, in their judgment, they haven’t got the infrastructure they need for it to go ahead.
But the most calamitous Big Idea is proving to be the housing growth areas, intended to add 200,000 extra houses by 2021. They are proving to be undeliverable for two reasons. First, politics: the new planning system and some of the delivery vehicles set up alongside it are being used to block development. Second, they are unaffordable because of the scale of infrastructure needed.
The Thames Gateway is not happening because the flood protection, land remediation, rail and other transport required is unaffordable and the Treasury will never pay for it. The demands of the 2012 Olympics have made the prospect even less likely.
In Ashford and Cambridge, local authority-led local delivery vehicles are co-ordinating and managing the growth areas. These bodies are led by Conservative-controlled councils that never wanted development. So they are naturally co-operating with gusto. No infrastructure or other perceived obstacle to development can be solved other than by the government meeting their demands for funding in full. And, if the exact package is not delivered to their satisfaction, there is no plan B. No other options for releasing development sites are being considered.
These delivery vehicles have a stranglehold over development and will bear no responsibility if housing output declines, as it will after 2007.
The growth areas envisage development that is infrastructure-intensive and highly concentrated. Proposed in the name of sustainable development, they are, as I said, undeliverable. And in my opinion, if a policy is undeliverable then it is unsustainable. On reflection, perhaps that is a compelling reason to abandon a big idea. Maybe that could be usefully considered by the Sustainable Development Round Table – as well as Miliband himself.
Roger Humber is a housing consultant