Giving Gavin Barwell three ministerial portfolios in Theresa May’s government is, by each passing day, looking like three portfolios too many for the Croydon Central Tory MP.
Following gaffe-prone Gav’s blunders at last week’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham over inheritance, where he suggested that the Bank of Gran and Grandad might be one way of getting twentysomethings on to the housing ladder, and he said that current regulations about the minimum size of new dwellings could be ignored so that smaller flats could be more affordable, now he is questioning whether the Local Plan system needs to be scrapped.
The Minister for Housing, Planning and London has said that he is looking at the possibility of reviewing councils’ Local Plans – the strategic documents which outline areas’ needs over a 20-year period – because housing need “in lots of places in the country is not reflective of what the market is actually telling us about what the real need is”.
Barwell made the comments at a fringe event organised by Housing Market Intelligence, and which have been reported by Inside Housing.
In Barwell’s own Croydon backyard, the local authority has been kicking around a Local Plan since 2013 under which it is proposing that more than 31,000 new homes be built in the borough in 20 years.
But in his own constituency, Barwell has attached himself to populist local campaigns, particularly in Shirley and parts of Ashburton, which are seeking to block the building of fewer than 300 of these homes across three sites.
According to Inside Housing, last week the housing minister questioned the accuracy of housing needs assessments used by councils when creating Local Plans.
A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesperson confirmed to the specialist publication that they are looking at how councils can better set targets that “reflect the needs of their communities”.
The National Planning Policy Framework requires councils to identify “objectively assessed” housing need and then translate this into a number of sites which can be listed in Local Plans as suitable for development.
But as Inside Housing reports: “A report published by the Local Plans Expert Group last year, commissioned by the DCLG, said these assessments are problematic because there is no ‘definitive’ guidance on how these assessments should be prepared ‘leading to significant disagreement and uncertainty over housing numbers’.”
The Inside Housing report states: “Government guidance says plan makers should not ‘constrain’ overall assessments by taking into account factors such as land supply, historic underperformance, viability, infrastructure or environment constraints when producing a needs assessment.
“Councils have warned that assessments therefore call for housing numbers well in excess of what the market can deliver.”
Some council planning officers have already complained that the housing numbers councils are expected to deliver are “totally unachievable”.
This might prove to be a convenient means in which Barwell – who as a housing minister has a duty to deliver lots more housing – is able to reconcile that with his position as an MP for an ultra-marginal constituency who has backed residents in their opposition to house-building.
“It is vital that local planning authorities set housing targets that reflect the needs of their communities,” a spokesman for Barwell’s department told Inside Housing.
“We are currently looking at how they can better achieve that, and will set out further details in due course.”
The Autumn Statement from new Chancellor Philip Hammond next month could also help to get Barwell off the hook, with much money being released to fund the building of new homes.
As today’s edition of Private Eye relates, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, told the Tory Conference, “We simply need to build more homes,” while Hammond, in his speech, said, “Quite simply, we’re not building enough new homes,” and Barwell’s departmental boss, communities secrteary Sajid Javid, said, “I’m not afraid to stand up and say that this country has not built enough new homes.”
The Tory Chancellor and communities secretary have already made a joint announcement on the topic – the third such announcement on house building in five years from various Conservative ministers – in which they announced that £5billion of funds will be used to help small building firms and to “unlock” brownfield sites and public land.
Today’s Torygraph reports Javid as promising a “radical” set of reforms to boost the housing market. He described the £5 billion house-building boost fund and other measures announced only a week ago as “short-term”, saying that a fundamental reshaping of housing policy was needed.
Of course, what May, Hammond, Javid, Barwell or, for that mattter, Tony Bliar, would never propose is the “radical” solution of accepting that the Thatcherite “Right to Buy” policies have skewed, and screwed, the housing market and the social provision of housing for nearly 40 years, using massive public subsidies to flog off public property as a decades-long election bribe.
Government figures make the point. Between 1969 and 1989, councils in England built close to 1.5 million homes. From 1992 to 2012, councils – banned by law from re-investing the proceeds of council houses sold under Right to Buy – built fewer than 15,000 homes.
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