Gavin Barwell, our new housing and planning minister seems to be universally highly regarded by Those in the Know. I have only met him once, at his request, and I came away with the impression of a chap open to new ideas, with a formidable intellect and a serious drive to make a difference. He seems very positive and forward looking altogether.
But he does not have the easiest of jobs (actually he has TWO tough jobs, one as minister for housing and planning, and one as minister for London; not an enviable workload) and the housing crisis, like the poor, seems, to be always with us. So he has been canny enough to start with a policy to boost housing through neighbourhood planning, which is already hugely popular in the country and (mostly) held in high esteem by laypeople and professionals alike. It is clever to start with the people at the chalk face.
The Neighbourhood Planning Bill, which Mr Barwell introduced into Parliament today and which will be debated soon, has measures which will “support more housebuilding and provide more local say over developments”. Nothing not to like there. The intention is that the bill will speed up and strengthen the popular neighbourhood planning process by simplifying how plans can be revised as local circumstances change and ensure that plans come into force sooner once approved by local people.
As Mr Barwell says so succinctly “…we need to build more homes and this bill is the first of a number of measures to deliver on that”.
The idea is to speed up neighbourhood planning, which puts power in the hands of local people to decide where development gets built. There will also be a simplifying of the compulsory purchase order process to make it “clearer, fairer and faster” (this is wholly well-intentioned, and the cynics among you can please leave your prejudices at the door). The other bill measures will ensure that planning conditions which “require developers to take action before work starts are only used where strictly necessary, but in a way that ensures important heritage and environmental safeguards remain in place, so that once a developer has planning permission they can get on and start building as soon as possible”. Well, the devil is in the detail of course, and it remains to be seen what all of that means. But it is certainly a step in the right direction.
Mr Barwell repeats the pledge of this government to take forward “the boldest ambition for housing in a generation”, with a pledge to deliver 1m new homes, and a “doubling of the housing budget to £20bn” (which must mean that the £3bn HCA HomeBuild Fund, known better to me as the “Housing Innovation Fund”, has now been launched; I completely missed this, it having got lost in the kerfuffle of Brexit and the reshuffle, I will try to return to it in a future blog, as I think it could be very important). Our new minister says “we have already built more than 900,000 homes since 2010 and now this bill will help speed up delivery of the further new homes our country needs and ensure our foot is still firmly on the pedal”.
“Foot firmly on the pedal” huh? Fighting talk. And an excellent start.