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Conservative homes plans are modest Matthew Warburton - 03/10/2014

Wordle_300My first reaction to this week's Conservative Party conference is surprise at how little was said about housing. And most of what was said was not new.

 

Plans to cut housing benefit for the under-25s were mooted earlier in this Parliament, and, predictably, reappeared as part of a package of proposals to cut welfare spending in the next one if the Conservatives are returned to government.

 

Eric Pickles launched the "Rent to Buy" scheme with the publication of a prospectus, but the scheme had already been announced in last year's Autumn Statement. The only completely new idea was a proposal to exempt developers from the community infrastructure levy and section 106 obligations if they build for first time buyers under 40 on brownfield sites.

 

It is claimed this could produce 100,000 new homes available at a 20 per cent discount. Not a huge contribution to the challenge of increasing new housing construction by around 80,000 every year to meet identified need.

 

Reactions to this last proposal have been critical, and rightly so. It is not so long since the Government was blaming local authorities for holding back construction by imposing too onerous planning requirements on developers. There was scant evidence to support this claim.

 

The good news is that the new policy amounts to a recognition that market conditions have changed and it is reasonable to expect developers to share some of their development profit with the community and use it to discount the provision of much needed homes for younger households.

 

However, the imposition of a one-size fits all scheme of this kind would deprive councils of the flexibility normally available through the planning system to negotiate a site-specific mix of community benefits to fit local conditions and priorities. There is a serious risk that a push to provide for just this one group of households will undermine the creation of mixed and sustainable communities which should surely have a higher priority.

 

Perhaps the perception is that, by and large, enough has been done under the present government to create the conditions for continued expansion in construction over the next few years.

 

The Government continues to defend the Help to Buy scheme, despite concerns from a variety of commentators that it has done more to push up prices than to stimulate more construction. Ministers can take some comfort from recent house price data which suggests that prices have stopped rising. It remains to be seen whether new private housing construction will increase by anything like the amount needed.

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