Observer column: 09 March 2018
Building a better future?
This week, the Prime Minister announced changes to national planning rules, to get more homes built. But what impact will that have here in Hastings?
In her speech, Theresa May rightly criticised councils who have still not completed their statutory local plan. These plans commit councils to enable a target number of homes to be built, on identified sites.
In Hastings, we completed our plan, and had it approved, almost four years ago. Some other councils in East Sussex still haven't completed theirs, meaning they have made no formal commitment to provide a specified number of homes. The target for Hastings is relatively low compared to other council areas: around 3,200 over the lifetime of the plan, to 2028. Hastings is a small, urban area with few large development sites. Many of the sites detailed in our plan are now being developed, so progress has been good.
What hasn't been so good is the number of social rented homes built. Our plan requires developers to have 25% social and affordable housing in their schemes. However, national rules mean that if a developer claims that inclusion of social housing would make their scheme 'unviable', the council cannot refuse planning permission on those grounds. The government is proposing to make these viability assessments 'more transparent', but that won't necessarily mean more affordable housing will be built here in Hastings. The viability test should be scrapped altogether.
There is also a proposal to allow councils to refuse planning permission to developers who have failed to build out sites for which they already have planning permission. But that's not enough. Blaming councils for not approving plans seems to be the wrong approach when so many homes with planning permission don't get built. Around 450,000 homes nationally have received planning permission at some time, but have never materialised. There are over 1,000 in Hastings. Developers should lose their land if they don't develop it.
More action is needed on empty homes, too, with owners losing their property if they leave it empty. Hastings Council does threaten to compulsorily purchase homes if they've been empty for more than two years - we've brought over 200 homes back into use in this way. If you know of a property that's been empty for more than two years, let the council know - the easiest way to do that is report it through My Hastings on the council website.
But the real problem with the proposed new national planning policy is that it still focuses on private developers building enough housing to bring prices down. Their duty isn't to the country or the people, as the Prime Minister suggested, it's to their shareholders - and that means maximising their profits. So they'll never build enough homes to make prices fall, it's not in their interests. The only solution is to build far more social rented housing, through councils and housing associations. Reform of the private rented sector is necessary too - re-introducing rent controls and secure tenancies would make buy-to-let less desirable, bring private sector rents down, and stop house prices escalating.
So there are bits in the new national planning policy that make sense, but it's too weak to make a real difference. We need much bolder and far-reaching policies, and much more social housing, to make housing truly affordable again.
Council Leader's column