Lord Greaves made an impassioned plea for local democracy in housing and planning policy during a debate last week in the House of Lords:
Year after year the Government say that they want to build more houses. However, they do not succeed; indeed, in recent years the situation has got worse. The philosophy is wrong, the analysis is wrong and the solutions are wrong. They continue to be wrong and things are not going to improve on the basis of present policy.
One real problem common to all Governments is that they are addicted to the idea of one policy fitting all—top-down rules, top-down planning and top-down restrictions. They do not allow local authorities and local people to get on with doing things appropriately in their areas, and it does not work. Then they always blame the planning system. I keep saying in your Lordships’ House that the plan-making part of the planning system is bust, but that is very largely due to the ever-growing plethora of top-down restrictions, top-down instructions and top-down attempted control by central government—something that we are now seeing again. By and large, the blame does not, in my view, lie with the development control system. Local authorities give planning permission for new housing and that new housing simply is not taken up. It is estimated that nearly 700,000 planning permissions have not been carried through.
Then we have council housing. We have a continuing central prejudice against local authorities buying and owning houses. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, referred to Harold Macmillan. Harold Wilson, who followed some time later as Prime Minister, used to refer to the 13 wasted Tory years in the 1950s and early 1960s, but those were the years when huge numbers of council houses were built. Building all those council houses was one of the greatest improvements made in the last century to the lives of ordinary people in this country. Yet we cannot do it anymore. We might refer to the 13 wasted Labour years we had before 2010, when the building of council houses dried up.
Why is this? Why is there such a prejudice against local authorities centrally? It is accepted that local authorities are the most efficient part of the public sector, and certainly the most democratic part. There is the problem, because democracy results in diversity: people do different things in different areas and solve problems in different ways. The civil servants and their ministerial colleagues at the centre simply do not like that, because it is out of their control.
A consultation is ongoing on Planning for the Right Homes in the Right Places. I keep reading and trying to understand this 60-page document in which the Government are offering to impose new housing numbers on local authorities. These local authorities have all established or are developing local plans and have worked out their housing numbers, and now they are all to be changed. Some will go up and some will go down. These are the numbers that the Government say will have to apply in each local authority, and yet they will not apply until there is a review of established local plans. That is nonsense. There will be a figure in the local plan, which everybody is using, and another figure handed down by the Government. In some places, such as my own authority in Pendle, the Government’s figures will be considerably lower than those in the local plan. In many other places, they will be higher.
Imagine the chaos that this will cause at planning inquiries when people appeal against the refusal of planning permission. Imagine the anger when local authorities say that they have to give planning permission for extra houses in the local plan, even though the Government are saying that the number might be half or two-thirds of what the plan states. There will be complete chaos. This is total madness.
How these numbers have been worked out is a mystery. The consultation document talks about a proposed approach to calculating the local housing need and to viability assessment; proposed numbers for household growth, which can change radically from year to year; and something called the “median affordability ratio”. I do not know whether the Minister understands the median affordability ratio; I have tried to and I do not. I cannot imagine people walking down the street saying, “Have you heard the latest about the median affordability ratio? It’s a disgrace. What are we going to do about it?”. This is the kind of thing that brings government and local authorities into disrepute.
I say trust the locals. There is growing evidence around the development of neighbourhood plans that if you give local people the power to work out the future housing numbers and where they should be, they will suggest building more houses than the local plans say. Give local people and local authorities the power to work out what is needed in their area, in the light of the plans for those areas and what the people think is right, and they will provide the houses. All this detailed, top-down technical planning that changes year after year causes complete chaos.