The RICS Housing Commission Report, published today, made for interesting reading not least for its timely argument for a long term strategy for house building in the UK. One of the great problems the self build world has faced over the past couple of decades has been in the constant re-education of numerous Housing and Planning Ministers of its various merits – just as you get some traction with one, they’re whisked off to a more glamorous position and the whole process of telling them about self build begins again.
Since 2010 that revolving door policy has changed, with just two ministers dealing with housing, but even three years is not exactly a long time to change a culture around planning and building homes that has been sixty years, perhaps more, in the brewing. And now, with less than two years left in the life of this current Parliament and not one of the three main parties seemingly that sure of being elected, the idea of setting groundworks and being in it for the long term seems to have been sacrificed – for the purpose of temporarily boosting housebuilding numbers so that the argument can be won when it comes to Election 2015.
What self build needs is a level of cultural change and some radical ideas that stay the course – perhaps operating outside of the five year election cycle. Ed Miliband’s idea to introduce a ‘use it or lose it’ policy for granting planning permission (which kind of ignores the fact that planning permission expires after 3 years anyway) – also mooted by Boris Johnson – is interesting but is problematic in that it tries to force commercial companies into doing something they don’t want to do. Much better to work with self builders to enable them. The problems as I see it are almost entirely based around land supply: if plots do become available they are ludicrously expensive because of their scarcity. So how about, in the first instance, a policy whereby local authorities have to release so many plots for individual homes each year, with some in or around every settlement? Once the quota is filled, it’s filled for the year – but it would certainly get things moving. It’s very much based on the German model, where self build has become a realistic choice for everyone. And the sooner self build becomes that over here, the quicker we can stop coming up with solutions that might boost things temporarily, and not by much at that.