Wednesday, September 19, 2012
When the Prime Minister asked me to become the new Housing
Minister, I was both surprised and delighted.
I had enjoyed my role as Business Minister and I am proud of the
work I have done, whether it be overseeing a record number of small
business start-ups or the investment of £6 billion into the UK
Yet as a constituency MP and as a chartered surveyor, I
recognise that the state of housing in this country is an issue
which affects everyone. So it's great to have the chance to help
unlock the housing market, get homes built and see more families
enjoy the security that comes from being able to step over their
Of course, as a constituency MP, I have been actively involved
in local housing and planning issues - helping young people trying
to get their first home, helping tenants tackle rogue neighbours,
or supporting local communities against inappropriate and
This won't change. Many people have asked me, for example, about
my stance on the proposal for the development of 3,000 acres of
green fields and Green Belt north of Harlow. So let me be clear. I
have opposed this scheme as unsustainable in the past and my view
remains the same today.
What's needed instead is a locally determined plan for a
sustainable number of homes which enables, for example, the
redevelopment of previously used or derelict land.
Of course, now that I have a quasi-judicial role as a minister,
I am limited in what I can say about other future proposals, should
they ever come to appeal. But my principles about ensuring that
developments are proportionate and sustainable remain firm.
So what are the main problems facing us nationally?
TOO FEW HOMES
First of all, we need to build more homes. Over the past 15
years the pace of house building has failed to keep pace with
It's causing real problems for millions of people -
overcrowding, 30-year-olds still living with mum and dad, and
workers not able to take a job because they can't get somewhere to
And the problem is going to get worse. The population is rising,
with more than 230,000 households expected to be formed every year
over the next decade. Yet the average annual supply of homes has
stood at an average of 160,000 with just 115,000 under the last
administration, which was the lowest level since the 1920s. So it's
clear John Prescott's top-down approach built nothing but
It is true that migration contributes around 40 per cent of this
That's one of the reasons why this Government is committed to
cutting the numbers of migrants from hundreds of thousands to tens
of thousands per year.
However, the main reason for the growth is that we are,
thankfully, living longer. Sixty per cent of projected household
growth to 2033 will be made up of those aged 65 and older.
If the housing market were functioning properly then you would
expect it to respond to this rising demand and deliver the homes
needed. But the truth is the housing market is highly volatile,
while often failing to deliver the homes where people need them.
This has driven prices up and priced many first-time buyers out of
the market. That's bad for them and for everyone else, as first
time buyers are a vital part of any house chain.
KICK-STARTING THE MARKET
So we need to help get the house market going and put in place
longer-term changes to the system, especially how we plan for
To kick-start the market, we have helped create a new and
innovative scheme. Called NewBuy, it enables homebuyers to secure
mortgages with at least 5 per cent deposit on new-build houses and
flats, and more than 1,300 people have already reserved a new home
through the scheme. Alongside this we are helping young first-time
buyers by providing a further £280m for the FirstBuy equity loan
scheme. Both products are new and one of my jobs is to make sure
that more people learn about and use them.
However, we also need to unlock sites that have planning
permission but which are stalled, by helping make them economically
viable and by removing the barriers for their development.
Sometimes it's about removing needless red tape, other times
it's the lack of an access road or basic infrastructure.
Equally there are many publicly-owned sites which have yet to be
unlocked for new housing and development. Some 40 per cent of
previously used land, suitable for development, is in Government
hands with local or national government.
I regard getting this land recycled and developed into homes as
a top priority and we have a series of practical policies which
will help me do this.
The New Homes Bonus in particular resolves a problem which many
of my constituents have previously complained about.
When new homes are built, it can affect local traffic or public
services such as schools. People have naturally resented the
development if the financial benefit goes solely into the coffers
of the Treasury. The New Homes Bonus tackles that problem by
rewarding local areas with the equivalent of six years' council tax
for each new extra home. Indeed, the Government has identified £1bn
of central government funding for the New Homes Bonus. This is
starting to help local areas, especially when money is tight.
The second challenge is how we can reform social housing to help
those on lower incomes. With 4.5m people on social housing waiting
lists and too many homes either overcrowded or under-occupied, it's
clear that the old system isn't working. Indeed, under the last
Government the waiting lists actually doubled.
So I am determined that we increase the total investment in this
sector, by levering in much more private investment, and by giving
social landlords much greater freedom over the type of tenancies
they can offer.
The current rigid rules often mean that the social housing stock
we have is underused, because of old rules that don't work
Equally I have seen too many tenants suffer at the hands of
neighbours from hell. Even in East Hertfordshire we have a tiny
minority who make people's lives an absolute misery, day in day
out. The behaviour can be despicable and sometimes violent. It's
quite wrong that their neighbours should have to put up with this,
often through the night.
TACKLING NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL
We need to make it simpler and easier to tackle this behaviour.
That means intervening earlier, to prevent a minor issue spiralling
into a bigger problem.
That means ensuring social landlords can act decisively and that
those who break the rules know that they will be evicted if they
don't mend their ways.
Of course this behaviour is usually part of a wider problem,
with troubled and chaotic families needing a firm, but holistic
approach from the police, social services, landlords and councils.
So I shall be actively backing my new department's troubled
families initiative, which seeks to tackle this group head on.
And the third national challenge, which I believe needs
addressing, is the issue of homelessness. It's true that the level
of homelessness is still roughly half what it was just a few years
ago. Yet it's still wrong that tens of thousands of people will
tonight be without a home, often through no fault of their own.
HELPING THE HOMELESS
My predecessor, Grant Shapps MP, has already acted to cut the
number of households in temporary accommodation and some £400m has
been allocated to prevent homelessness in the first place.
This is right, but homeless people often have many other
problems in their lives, involving family breakdown, drugs and so
on which need to be addressed in the round. The Home Secretary is
taking the lead on this and I want to be an active part of that
approach, so we can deal with the causes of homelessness.
Each of these three problems is complex and substantial. And
they do not represent the whole picture. Our planning system has
failed in the past to help deliver either the quantity or quality
of homes we need. The new simplified national planning policy
framework offers a real chance to provide clarity to the principle
that there should be a presumption in favour not of any development
but of truly sustainable development.
GREEN BELT MATTERS
That means the Green Belt will remain an important protection
against urban sprawl, providing a "green lung" around our major
towns and cities. Indeed the coalition agreement commits the
Government to safeguarding Green Belt land. However, councils
already have the power to review where their local Green Belt
should lie to reflect local circumstances. Some may choose to
redraw the boundaries, where there are previously developed sites
like old quarries which could usefully be developed, while
protecting the openness of the Green Belt. But any decision to
review Green Belt is a local issue and not something which
Government is going to dictate.
LOCAL PRIORITIES FIRST
The reinstatement of local plans, devised and determined
locally, is a welcome return to an approach that allows coherent
forward planning, which is democratically accountable. This is a
vital change from the old John Prescott regional spatial
strategies, which were rarely sustainable and wholly undemocratic.
It means, of course, that as each plan is developed there will be
very difficult debates to be had in each local area.
East Herts Council is presently drawing together the next local
plan, and faces some tough choices as it does so. Yet the point is
that it's not a regional quango deciding for us, but local
councillors, accountable to local voters who set the shape and
character of our communities for the next decade.
So, there is much to do and it's a real challenge. But that's
what I like.