Jackie Hook

Liberal Democrat County Councillor Newton Abbot North, District Councillor Bushell Ward Learn more

The Case for a Unified Local Campaign on Housing

by Jackie Hook on 24 February, 2020

Housing is a hot topic. For many, what seems like an imposition of vast expanses of bland housing indistinguishable from housing we might see any where else in the country has generated growing anger. For others the search for a decent house they can afford seems an ever diminishing dream. Then of course there are those struggling to afford any roof over their head, on the street, or sofa surfing, whilst at the same time foreign investors buy up blocks of flats, keep them empty and watch the value increase. Rural housing is increasingly concentrated in the hands of older, wealthier and second home owners, with young locals pushed out. Something has gone very wrong it would seem.

But who is to blame?

Perhaps our starting point should be defining how important housing is, what are our rights when it comes to housing?

The right to housing is recognized in a number of international human rights instruments. To quote from one such United Nations instrument “The human right to adequate housing is more than just four walls and a roof. It is the right of every woman, man, youth and child to gain and sustain a safe and secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity”

It includes, legal security of tenure: affordability, habitability, availability of services, safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, washing facilities, means of food storage, refuse disposal.; it should be properly located with access to employment options, health-care services, schools, child-care centres and should not be built on polluted sites or near to pollution sources;

It is shocking that there is a too large a proportion of our population that continue to be denied one or more aspects of their basic human right to housing, in its widest sense. There are about 1000 households on Teignbridge’s Housing Waiting List, the vast majority not even able to afford what the government define as affordable housing. Many are living in accommodation not suited to their needs.

So, it is good to remind ourselves of the need for a range of appropriate housing; and that housing, is so much more than bricks and mortar.

The job of Council’s is therefore an urgent one, and one that requires us to work together, focussing on what should be at the core of all of our work, the people of our District, especially those people in need.

The urgency of the issue, has led us as a new Lib Dem administration to elevate the provision of “genuinely affordable housing” to a joint top priority alongside the climate emergency.

However, it wouldn’t be a complete picture though if I didn’t bring up the other hot topic, that of the government’s imposition of a house building numbers target. This is a topic that fills Cllrs inboxes. There are some that don’t believe we should be building any new houses at all, many others that they should only be on brownfield sites, or only affordable homes. How did this become the hot topic filling Cllr inboxes, or has it always been that way?

I came across some surprising house building figures in a book written by Shaun Spiers “How to Build Houses and Save the Countryside”. Shaun was Chief Executive of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) until 2017. The book is endorsed by Toby Lloyd, Shelter’s Policy Adviser.

Between 1951 and 1979 an average of 324,000 homes a year were built in the UK. House building was popular and it won votes. Housing completions peaked in 1968 at around 352,000 units, approx 144,000 of these Council houses, and approx. 5,500 Housing Association properties.

In 2016 by contrast, housing completions in UK, were approx. 141,000 (almost a third of the 1968 figure), and if I’m honest in Teignbridge advocating more house building does not feel like a vote winner.

The book goes on to discuss how this decline in house building came about and why public opinion has changed, and offer solutions so that we can both provide the housing we need, alongside saving the countryside

To quote part of Toby Lloyd’s summary “ We have lost the sense of planning as a positive act of shaping our neighbourhoods and our nation for the benefit of all.” We only have to look to social media to see planners too often are portrayed as the enemy of the people – but how can anybody be against planning for the future, where did such opinions originate?

Toby goes on to say about the national planning system, “The result is a system that frustrates local people and entrenches oppositional attitudes, and yet fails to give us the homes we need.

The book concludes that the planning system is the main culprit, with Council  planners, local politicians and the public being its victims.

To quote “ The system is designed to favour developers, whilst giving the appearance of local control. As the Conservative government skewed the planning system in favour of developers and against both those in housing need and communities seeking to protect the countryside, it pretended that “localism” guided planning decisions. In any case the continuing focus on housing numbers puts Councils in a weak position in negotiating with developers. If the developer threatens to down tools, the local authority risks losing its five year land supply and having its plan declared invalid. The “presumption in favour of sustainable development” (NPPF) then kicks in, giving the local authority very little say over what is built where. So, Council’s cave in, developers build fewer affordable homes, and virtually no social housing, and local CPRE and other groups dig deeper into their trenches, resisting even good proposals for new housing, because they assume them to be based on lies. There is generally zero confidence that a new development can result in better places. Indeed the common and justified assumption is that development causes harm; that promises of affordable housing, good design and green infrastructure will be negotiated away on grounds of non-viability; and that local people will be lied to and forced to accept whatever the developer can get away with. We need a radically improved system”

It seems all of us that are concerned about this situation have a big job to do helping some of the public understand the entire debate around housing. It seems to me all of us locally need to be lobbying government, since that is where change is needed. Resident’s Association and local campaign groups that form to oppose particular proposed housing sites, are a perfectly understandable response to the failings described above, but any effective campaign plan would work out where the path to their successful campaign lay and make that it’s campaign target. Since, as described above the public, local politicians, planners and campaign groups are all the victims of this failing system, an effective campaign would also gel these potential allies into a powerful lobbying force. A unified local voice challenging government planning policy.

 I very much suggest reading the book by Shaun Spiers, and offer this set of thoughts as a starter for us all locally, concerned about this issue, to hopefully move in a more constructive direction.

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