John Harris dissects key aspects of the housing “crisis” in a typically thoughtful and powerful way (The Tories are tearing themselves apart over housing – but this is another crisis of their own making, 27 November). But on the way he displays a crucial misunderstanding. There is no presumption in favour of development in the planning system; it’s a presumption in favour of sustainable development – something with which surely no one could disagree? This is an egregious example of the Tory use of sophistry that has made a massive contribution to the issue that Harris so ably describes. Far from being an objective, science-based definition, it is in reality a circular argument that the government inserted in the national planning guidance.
In effect, “sustainable” is what the government, Humpty Dumpty-like, says it is. The assessment of major housing proposals, which so often go to appeal, is comically perfunctory, the overriding criterion being the supply of new housing, however and wherever built. Many people participate in this charade. We have been building in unsustainability – carbon emissions, destruction of habitat, poor health and unaffordability – throughout the last 12 years. The cost of retrofitting will be astronomical. We need the houses we need. Campaigners cannot morally deny that, but development must be based on sound sustainability principles and by applying rigorous tests that are available but are never used effectively.
The planning guidance or, more accurately, diktat is what needs to be radically overhauled to place sustainability at its heart. That will result in major shifts in the burden of costs and benefits, but equally, that must be faced.
John Harris rightly points to the complexity of the issue that goes beyond finger-pointing at nimbys. However, having worked for a local authority recently, I get the sense that many well-off and organised residents weaponise issues such as environmental concerns, lack of infrastructure and pressure on services to serve their own ends, and usually offer solutions such as building on brownfield sites. These involve other associated costs and complexities for local authorities and developers, and hold back economic growth and much-needed housing for people who commute to work in places where they can’t afford to live.
Local authorities are not allowed to build schools either, which compounds the issue. Newly built houses do bring in council tax revenue for local authorities, so surely they have to start somewhere to generate revenue to rebuild infrastructure and services?
It is worth recalling that the only time that we were able to complete 300,000 new homes a year was when half of them were local authority-built for subsidised social rent (under a Conservative housing minister – Harold Macmillan). We know we can’t rely on private housebuilders to provide the affordable housing that we so desperately need, and a thorough reform of the way that housing is delivered is required. What is also needed is a commitment to genuine levelling up, with new, well-paid jobs and the housing that goes with them available throughout the country, not just in the already overheated south.
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