GRANT SCRAPS? - by Rupert Bates

Date:

Friday 4th June 2010

Do you want to be a housebuilding hero Grant Shapps? The new Housing Minister has been quick to denounce the spending excesses of Labour as he trawls through Communities and Local Government accounts. But it is time to call Shapps to account and deliver on promises.

What promises? That is the beauty - if you are in government - and the beast - if you are a voter - of coalition. Any ‘promise' can be broken because nobody voted for a coalition and a pledge is no more than furniture polish - on expenses.

At the Home Builders Federation policy conference two months before the General Election Conservative MP Shapps told an audience of housebuilders that he wants Britain to be ‘a nation of housebuilders.' A room full of housebuilders pebble-dashed the hallowed Westminster walls of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers with custard creams, having barely digested the Conservatives ‘localism' green paper, handing planning powers to the parish pump..

"We want to build houses to drive economic prosperity. We cannot hold onto a system that has failed to deliver," said Shapps. Then within days of the new government being formed Eric Pickles, Communities and Local Government Secretary, wrote to local authorities informing them regional targets were to be scrapped, with South Oxfordshire council immediately announcing it was dropping its core strategy, which sets out future housing development over a 20-year period.

"Scrapping the existing system without a replacement is a recipe for disaster," said Stewart Baseley, HBF executive chairman.

"While expecting a new planning system, the industry has long argued the desperate need for a clear and robust transition plan to ensure the radical change from the ‘top down' approach of the past government to the ‘localism' based approach of the new regime, can be effected without damage to the supply of much needed homes across the country," added Baseley.

Shapps also said he wanted "a faster planning system that is pro-development." The fact is that I doubt there was a single Conservative or Lib-Dem MP who campaigned on a ‘pro-development' ticket and many MPs, defending their seats, highlighted their anti-development stance in stopping major new housing projects in their constituencies as major achievements in office.

Shapps, to his credit, in opposition engaged with the housebuilding industry at many levels, but, even at this early stage, there is a genuine sense of betrayal and the HBF and its members are clearly angry. While a bonfire of the quangos was expected to cut waste and claw back the criminally large budget deficit, throwing slabs of the Homes & Communities Agency into the flames was done far too quickly and without any forethought.

Kickstart funding, for all its bureaucracy and confusion, was not government largesse for the sake of it in troubled times, but in essence a public-private initiative. "Kickstart was put in place to get stalled housebuilding sites working again and generated many times more private sector investment than the initial injection of public money," said Baseley.

"Cutting kickstart money, that creates immediate benefits in terms of local jobs and for the wider economy, is a cut on investment, not waste."

Shapps has also trumpeted his eco-credentials, setting out his vision "to get the green housing industry back on track.' It was never off track, for an incredible amount of industry work has gone into low-carbon housing initiatives.

"When we were in Opposition I said I endorsed the concept of building all new homes to a zero carbon standard, and that remains my position. I know how important it is to industry to have a clear definition as soon as possible, so that housebuilders can buy land with confidence and start to design the homes of the future and so the supply chain can gear up production of the technologies that will be needed," said Shapps.

"I will be publishing a final zero carbon definition in a matter of weeks so that the industry can get on and deliver the improved eco-friendly homes we need."

Until we have a coherent planning policy and not one so mired in Nimbyism, whatever the local cash incentives to build, the industry cannot ‘get on and deliver' anything. We joked about Labour's ludicrously ambitious target of three million new homes by 2020. The joke now is that the Coalition government has set itself a target of three new homes by 2020 - but with a pledge that all three will be green.

Eric Pickles says the new government wants to "reverse creeping state control and return power to the people."

That cannot be applied to housebuilding. It is an industry artificially deprived of its basic raw material - permissioned land - by the state. The supply of new homes is an economic, social and environmental imperative that the government has to take responsibility for. Otherwise why bother with a housing minister? Do you want to be a housebuilding hero Grant Shapps?

Rupert Bates is editorial director of www.whathouse.com . Follow him at www.twitter.com/rupertbates  or at www.rupertbates.com