Solve the Housing Crisis: Build your own?

There is a schizophrenic quality to government these days. It is as if those in power want to present themselves as in opposition to their own policies in order to show the public that deep down they are on our side.

Hence David Cameron’s alleged outburst about ‘getting rid of this green crap’ over concerns about energy prices. But it is Nick Boles, the Planning Minister, who seems most intent on making a name for himself as a bold and radical reformer. In an effort to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about the housing crisis he has talked about building on the Green Belt and relaxing planning laws. All of which has made him the bête noire of the Daily Telegraph and the Greens. And he has suggested that the State could offer the young land on which to build their own houses. As with all government initiatives there is usually a TV celebrity present to give the policy credibility. This one is backed by Kevin McCloud.

Admittedly there is nothing wrong with the idea of young people who are priced out of owning their own home being allowed to build one of their own. Indeed it conjures up an image for me of the youth of Birmingham heading out west to stake their claim in the spacious green pastures of Shropshire. But as with all housing initiatives these days this comes under strict state supervision. So far just 12 plots of land have been released for self-build. And, for all the rhetoric, the freedom to buy some land and build your own home is not part of the plan at all. Instead you have to put your name down on a list so that you can be properly vetted and screened by the authorities; and maybe you have to agree to take part in the next series of Grand Designs too.

For all of Nick Boles’ faux-radicalism it is easy to forget (as he apparently has) that he is the Planning Minister. As such he has the power to change the planning system, and not just in a piecemeal fashion. It is still governed by the principle enshrined in the The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 that the State controls all rights to land development. This donkeys-old legislation has effectively nationalised the development of land and made it difficult to build new homes; when what we desperately need is to release all the surplus land no longer needed for agriculture and make it available for house building. Rather than straitjacketing development, if we are to truly address the housing shortage the State needs to relinquish its control. Or, to put it in market terms, if Nick Boles is really on the side of those of us who want to see some real house building he will allow for that decades-long pent-up demand to be met by supply.

Written by Steve Nash. The Social Policy Forum challenges unthinking orthodoxies in the age of the Big Nudge. We are on Twitter @SocialPolicyFor.

Picture by: David Wright