I’m delighted to be here, and to join you for both your annual conference and for the launch of your Build Local report.
It was John Gieson (with my good friend Charles Walker MP) who first spoke to me about your work. And I liked what I heard.
As you know, this is a government that is committed to the principle of localism. It’s vital that local people are part of how a community is shaped, both now and for the future.
And as a chartered surveyor, I have seen for myself how developments that are imposed from above rarely succeed.
And now more than ever, we need to be prepared to achieve a long-term change in all of our housing markets, which have become increasingly dysfunctional.
Today, I should like to talk to you about how, as a government, we are addressing this problem;
- first, I would like to set out the need for new thinking, not least in a tough financial climate
- second, I want to show how we’re developing communities that last, not just building housing estates; and
- third, I want to look ahead, particularly at how we can address the changing needs of an ever growing elderly population
New thinking, tough financial climate
Let me start by saying that there is no single answer to our housing problems.
The fact that we have been building roughly half the number of homes we need, year in, year out, for over 15 years, shows we have to think outside the box.
But what does that mean in practice?
First, we need to reinvigorate all the housing sectors. The owner occupied market. The private rented sector and the affordable housing sector.
You know, in the past, some governments have tended to focus on home ownership. And other governments have been pre-occupied with the social sector. Yet on their own, neither will suffice.
That’s why this government is working to help all the sectors grow, because we recognise that the condition of each affects the others.
Secondly, and following on from this, we are taking a radically different approach to the private rented sector. For too long it’s been neglected, and it’s time that changed.
After all, it’s a sector which has grown substantially in the last decade. Indeed some 3.8 million families now live in privately rented homes.
So that’s why we have launched the Build to Rent fund. With now a £1 billion available, this programme will help to kickstart supply. But it will also help us draw new players into the market.
Again, we’re thinking about the long term. We believe that by encouraging institutional investors into the market, we can foster a longer term approach to the design, quality and the lease terms of the properties on offer.
And long term investors also understand the value of developing places where people want to live.
Alongside the Build to Rent fund, we have also taken the bold decision to provide substantial Housing Guarantees, underpinning up to £10 billion of debt.
Available for both privately rented and affordable homes, these government-backed guarantees will help secure a sustained investment in the private rented sector and so offer greater quality and choice for tenants.
We have also brought a new approach to funding affordable homes.
The Affordable Homes Programme uses £4.5 billion of taxpayers’ money, to lever in a further £15 billion of private finance.
The result is that, despite an appalling financial legacy, we have been able to commit to build 170,000 more affordable homes by 2015.
So far, I can tell you that we are well on track, with some 58,000 built in 2011 to 2012. This represents an increase of one third over the annual average achieved in the period up to 2010.
And in the Budget the Chancellor provided an additional £450 million, so we can deliver 30,000 further affordable homes.
So, as you can see, by thinking outside the box, we are going to be able to achieve lasting change, despite one of the toughest financial climates for any incoming government.
Lasting communities, not just housing estates
However, while we are ambitious to increase the supply of housing, we are also acutely aware of the danger of simply chasing numbers.
Setting and pursuing arbitrary housing targets rarely works. The old Regional Spatial Strategies set huge housing targets, yet the rate of house building actually fell to its lowest level in peacetime, since the 1920s. So crude Whitehall led targets don’t work.
But there’s another problem with these central targets. It’s one which you have recognised more than others.
In the push to hit targets, governments in the past have ended up promoting housing estates which were poorly designed and badly built. And rarely did those estates reflect what local people actually wanted.
Many of those estates, say from the 1970s, have rarely fared well over the years. And with the physical decay, comes the inevitable social decline.
So we believe it’s vital to ensure that when we think about increasing housing supply, we pay careful attention to the design, the layout, the quality and the importance of mixing uses and mixing tenures.
This is especially crucial when you look at large scale developments.
Since I started this job, last September, I have focused on unlocking major sites, which have got caught up in the system. Sites that are supported locally, but which, often for financial or bureaucratic reasons, have failed to happen.
And in doing so, I and my officials have paid careful attention to looking at the scale and quality of the infrastructure and amenities in such schemes.
Let me give you an example; just east of Exeter in Devon, lies Cranbrook. It’s been struggling to proceed ever since the credit crunch back in 2008. Yet the original plan sought not just to build homes, but to develop a rounded community with schools, community facilities, shops and even a railway station.
So last November we agreed to provide a £20 million recoverable loan to get the infrastructure and schools underway now. It means the whole development can proceed, with the essential amenities upfront, not tacked as an afterthought.
Cranbrook is one of several similar sites, which I have been working on across the country. In Wokingham, for example, we have provided the University of Reading with a £24 million recoverable loan to resolve local transport links and so unlock not just housing, but also a new Science Park.
But there is second aspect to Cranbrook which I want to highlight.
When I visited the site in December, I met a locally recruited community church worker. Mark Gilborson had been recruited by the local Churches Together because they recognised that if this new settlement was to work, it needed someone to help bring people together.
How right they were. And I have recently met with Churches Together nationally, to better understand how this pastoral work can help us ensure that many more communities come together.
Clearly Churches Together isn’t the only way to achieve this, but nevertheless I believe that this focus on people rather than bricks and mortar is right, and I would encourage all planning authorities and developers to involve community and faith groups in this way.
But what else can be done to enable local people to shape their community?
As part of our reforms to the planning system, we have changed the law to give neighbourhood plans real statutory weight.
It means that people can now have a genuine say in where and when development takes place and, just as importantly, what that development should look like. Indeed, that ability to shape the look of a town, suburb or village is often more important to people, than the use of the building.
And the good news is that some 500 communities have already taken up the right to make a legally binding neighbourhood plan.
To help them, we have put in place a programme of practical support and grants, and set out how community groups would be able to tap into some 25% of any community infrastructure levy receipts where neighbourhood plans are in place.
And this makes the principles of your ‘Build Local’ report not just desirable, but achievable for thousands of communities across the country.
Helping the elderly
Now let me turn lastly to how we might help one especially important group within our communities, namely the elderly.
60% of the projected household growth will come from the happy fact that we are all living longer. This is good news - however, it does have significant implications for our housing stock.
It’s a complex question, which requires careful consideration of not just existing homes, but also the financing, design, functionality and location of future homes.
There are already signs that people are re-thinking how we can provide the elderly with both the shelter and support they need.
In my own constituency in Hertford, I recently opened 2 excellent new facilities for the elderly which my Housing Association Riversmead has developed.
Bircheley Court and Calton Court have been redeveloped with the direct involvement of the existing residents.
The design is light and airy and many of the shared communal areas look outwards. Amongst facilities like an internet suite and hair salon, a GP’s surgery is located in Calton Court, again integrating the development into the wider community.
And the package of flexi care means that as people’s needs change so they can increase the support they need, without ever moving home.
And just as important, both developments are centrally located in the community, not on the edge.
This is just 1 example of what can be achieved to provide not just homes for the elderly, but the right physical and social environment we might all want to live in as we get older.
There’s a lot more to do, and I would very much welcome your ideas, comments and experience as we review policies and resources, so we can learn from what works and spread good practice across the country.
So, ladies and gentlemen, as a government we are absolutely committed to the principle of localism. Local people can and must be able to shape their community.
That’s why we have reformed planning, to replace top down targets with Local and Neighbourhood Plans.
It’s why we are challenging the old building and financial models so we can promote change and innovation.
And it’s why we want to ensure that in building more homes, we don’t lose sight of the need to develop communities that last.
This are no simple solutions, and no short term approach. But with your help and the values of ‘PlaceShapers’, I believe we can achieve a long term change, and so build the right homes and communities, for the next generation.