Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence


Memorandum by the Brethren's Gospel Trust (AH 56)

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1  We represent Charitable Gospel Trusts established by Christians commonly known as "Brethren", who have long established and growing congregations in about 100 towns and cities throughout Britain.

  1.2  Congregation numbers continue to increase with both "planting" of new assemblies and an ongoing need for new halls in existing areas. As a result of these needs, Trustees are active participants in the planning process, in promoting appropriate Development Plan policies at both Regional and Local level and in the Development Control process.

  1.3  The Brethren's Christian fellowship have an interest in the prosperity of the nation. Housing is a subject affecting all our neighbours in the streets in which we live; together with Brethren's employees, as well as Brethren's households. In several cities, especially in the South-East of England we have evidence of new household formation being delayed by reason of inadequate supply of housing at affordable prices. Some Brethren are currently relocating away from Greater London, whilst retaining a presence in the area.

  1.4  We are grateful for this Committee examining this subject, in view of much having been written and debated in both Houses which we would like to see put into practical help for the nation as a whole. We approach this matter in the light of our current experience and concerns for our families, rather than as experts in this field.

  1.5  Background information on the Brethren's Christian Fellowship may be obtained from www.theexclusivebrethren.com.

2.  RESPONSE TO ISSUES RAISED BY COMMITTEE

2.1  The potential benefits of and scope to promote greater homeownership

  We support the view expressed in the "Sustainable Communities Plan 2003" which states "Owning a home gives people a bigger stake in their community, as well as promoting self-reliance". In our experience homeownership benefits over rent in pride and care put in by owners which uplifts and maintains neighbourhoods, so that people do not live "on the street" but rather develop safe communities. Homeownership provides households with what is for many their main financial investment, which historically has steadily appreciated in value. Home ownership, even when paying off a mortgage, provides a form of savings, in contrast to renting which does not provide the household with any equitable asset. In view of a convergence between rentals and mortgage payments, we believe greater home ownership should continue to be a public policy priority.

2.2  The extent to which home purchase tackles social and economic inequalities and reduces poverty

  We consider that homeownership immediately stimulates a climb out of poverty. Lord Best has drawn attention to 101,000 homeless households and a huge increase in number of those between those able to obtain social housing and those able to afford to buy. We support current Government policies which seek to encourage a better supply of privately built homes, including low cost market housing; to encourage social tenants to move into homeownership and to help tenants in Council properties to exercise the Right to Buy.

2.3  The economic and social impact of current house prices

  We share the views expressed by Kate Barker at Final Report paras 1.11 and 1.12 and in 0DPN Consultation Paper "Planning for Housing Provision" : July 2005 paragraphs 12-14. In short, house prices constrain economic growth, increasing wage costs for business and resulting in reduced availability and mobility of labour for business employment. Social impacts include a widening gap between homeowners and non-homeowners, leading to greater wealth inequalities. Aspiring first time buyers are forced to delay entry to the housing market until later in life, hence leading to overcrowding due to suppressed household formation and rising numbers of homeless or households in temporary accommodation. Glen Bramley has demonstrated that only 37% of new households could afford to buy in 2002, compared to 46% of new households in the late 1980's. (Bramley G : Barker Inquiry in Housing Supply—Affordability and the Intermediate Market (2003)). We are aware of evidence of families relocating away from London to lower-priced areas, thus assisting new generation household formation earlier than otherwise. Further examples of the economic and social impact of current house prices are provided by a significant increase in long distance commuting, for example Stansted Airport workers being bussed in from Birmingham; resulting in unsustainable travel in terms of adverse CO2 emissions and unnecessary road congestion. There is widespread anecdotal evidence of constraints to economic growth due to the inability to fill potential jobs. In some cases, work is lost to overseas locations.

2.4  The relationship between house prices and housing supply

  Numerous recent studies have highlighted the indisputable shortfall in housing supply compared with demand. At the opening of the Examination in Public for the East of England Plan last week the Head of Growth Division at ODPN advised the Panel that nationally we are currently building only four new homes for every seven new households. In "Land for Housing" (Joseph Rowntree Foundation :2002) we are told that current annual average completions are under 140,000 compared to a demand for some 225,000 new homes per annum. The constant rise in house prices over the past six years is also well documented. However, unlike other less constrained markets, supply has not increased to match price rises. Comparison with other countries demonstrates that this is abnormal (see Barker Report—Final—para 1.8). Current rates of construction have fallen from over 300,000 dwellings a year, in the 1960's.

2.5  Other factors influencing the affordability of housing for sale including construction methods and fiscal measures

  Uncertainties in the wider construction and civil engineering industry, subjected to at least 40 years of "stop-go" policies and taxation have led to a steady reduction in the size of the industry. The traditional "father to son" understanding of tradesmen has largely been lost and there is now a national skills shortage. This has been recognised by the CITB but will take time to rectify. In the meantime, an inability to respond to labour demands appears to have resulted in a less flexible construction industry, in which tender prices have risen sharply, increasing costs of housing and infrastructure (roads, sewers, water supply and other services). Major housebuilding proposals such as Cambourn and The Wixams (Bedfordshire) suffer major delays due to land assembly and complex legal agreements both under S106 of the Town and Country Planning Act and S278 if the Highways Act which delay the issue of planning permission and the construction of access roads and bypasses. Housing schemes are increasingly called upon to make significant financial contributions to education, affordable housing, transport improvements and environmental benefits for example. Increased demands for health and safety measures reduce flexibility on site, increasing costs. Planning constraints and competition for site releases result in increased land prices. Policies seeking to provide a high proportion of housing on previously developed land have been successful but the increased time delays and costs incurred in decontamination both mitigate against affordability. Improved building regulations including high insulation measures also have a cost impact. Purchase of second homes in rural areas competes with local needs and represents poor stewardship of our national housing stock. Further competition for homeowners arises from investors purchasing newly constructed houses and offering these for rental. Whilst this phenomena provides an additional home it has an adverse impact on affordability of market housing. We consider this should be discouraged by either taxation or primary legislation.

2.6  The scale of the Government's plans to boost housing supply

  "Sustainable Communities: building for the future" (ODPH: 2003) sets out the Governments plans to deliver a step change in housing supply in London and the South East by 2016, by an additional 200,000 homes above then current regional planning guidance. This growth is focused in London, Thames Gateway, Ashford, Milton Keynes—South Midlands and the London-Stansted-Cambridge corridor. London, Ashford and MKSM subregional strategies are now in place. The East of England Plan is at Examination in Public, testing current proposals and increased proposals by Government against environmental capacity and infrastructure constraints. Both the East of England Regional Assembly and South East England Regional Assembly are, however, resisting requests for further increased housing supply. On the other hand, recent reports suggest local initiatives to increase housing supply in Norwich and Haven Gateway with Government support. We are concerned at the ability of the planning process to deliver the step change sought in a short time frame. Other regions including South-West, West Midlands and East Midlands are currently reviewing their Regional Spatial Strategies, giving an opportunity for further growth in suitable locations further from the south-east.

2.7  The relative importance of increasing the supply of private housing as opposed to subsidised housing

  Private housing is required to meet needs for increased homeownership, thus promoting self-reliance and pride in the community. Fiscal measures such as low cost or subsidised mortgages for first time buyers and essential workers (nurses, teachers, firemen) may he rendered ineffective in stabilising house prices unless accompanied by increased housing supply. Subsidised housing represents a burden on taxpayers, both private individuals and through s106 agreements, the landowners. Increased proportions of subsidised housing may result in landowners becoming reluctant to release building land, countering Government proposals to boost housing supply.

2.8  How the planning system should respond to the demand for housing for sale

  The planning system as currently operated in England is "tilted" in favour of negative attitudes including Nimbyism, excessive environmental protection and other single interest groups who are often organised and vocal but not necessarily representative of the population as a whole. Recent legislation to make Inspector's recommendations binding on local planning authorities is expected to speed up delivery of land through the new LDF process. Current faster tracked RSS reviews will also provide a stronger lead to local authorities. Further reforms are expected to be announced shortly in a revised PPS3 : Housing. We would favour the reinstatement of the "double presumption" in favour of planning permission in the absence of a genuine availability of five years housing land together with clear advice to local authorities that the sequential search for sites does not extend to land releases. Brownfield land should take precedence in site allocation, with realistic delivery times, but where it can be demonstrated that greenfield sites will also be needed, development must be permitted on both brownfield and greenfield sites together. Notwithstanding the abandonment of "Predict and Provide", it must be emphasised that "Plan, Monitor and Manage" requires a robust and flexible plan at the outset at both regional and local levels. In the current climate of constrained supply of quality and experienced planning staff, we have doubts at the ability of local authorities to respond rapidly to enhanced market monitoring and the willingness of elected members to deliver changes indicated by the proposed triggers. A full and rigorous review of the justification for all "Green Space" including Green Belt, Green Wedge is called for immediately, to permit greater flexibility for housing land release, especially close to conurbations.

2.9  The scale of housing development required to influence house prices and the impact of promoting such a programme on the natural and historical environment and infrastructure provision

  We believe that the Barker recommendations for a buffer of additional land equivalent to 20% to 40% above that required to meet housing targets would be likely to assist in stabilising the effects of planning and land supply on house prices. However, as noted above there are other influences on housing supply including labour and skills shortages and fiscal constraints. It was forecast that by 2001 about 11% of England would be in urban use (Breheny & Hall : TCPA : 1996). At that time about 45% of housing was being built on previously developed land. For the past three years this has risen to 67% (Planning for Housing Provision : ODPM : 2005) and densities have increased to 39 dph average in 2004. There are likely to be some adverse impacts on natural and historical environments, but in our view these tend to be overstated and with careful regional planning, subject to SEA, enhanced development offers commensurate environmental benefits. For example, notwithstanding significant growth proposals the SA/SEA for the East of England Plan states:

    "The great majority of the impacts of policies are positive. The pattern of development which the RSS seeks to encourage are likely to make the region's environment, and quality of life for its residents, much better than would be the case without it."

  Infrastructure includes water supply, where innovative initiatives are required on a national basis for both flexible methods of supply, inter-regional where appropriate, and in terms of water economics (water saving, water recycling). Climate change demands and greater awareness of flood risk issues will present a challenge for protection and disposal of storm water. However, revisions to PPG25 and forward thinking by Regional Water Companies and the Environment Agency are already working together for solutions. Transport infrastructure at local, regional and national levels requires care to ensure flexible responses which do not encourage additional travelling. Public transport will need increased investment especially in South-East England and other conurbations. However, in many cases this is already required to overcome current deficits, eg. Thameslink 2000.

2.10  The regional disparities in the supply and demand for housing and how they might be tackled

  Regional disparities call for a "light touch" from ODPM and encouragement of realistic reviews to RSS, which we are encouraged to note are in progress in all regions. The selective release of Green Belt and other green space, following a national review, would provide flexibility in responding to existing shortfalls. Government should consider extending identified "growth areas" into the northern regions and perhaps also to the South-West to encourage further dispersal from London and the South-East. Further encouragement of out of South East ports and airports could also aid regeneration, urban renaissance and more balanced national demand and supply for housing, associated with enhanced economic opportunities in areas such as former coalfields, to overcome regional disparities.





 
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