Mark Oliver's thoughts on the Autumn Statement
For the construction industry all the excitement of the Autumn Statement has come in advance of Chancellor George Osborne’s star turn in parliament later today. “A radical new approach to housing, £2.3 billion of investment in flood defences and £15 billion of road improvements” ran the first line of today’s Treasury press release launching its 2014 National Infrastructure Plan.
Under the plan the government has pledged to put the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) well and truly in the driving seat for a pilot programme aimed at delivering the planned 10,000 home Northstowe settlement on a former airfield in Cambridgeshire twice as fast as “conventional” approaches. HCA will lead on masterplanning, commissioning, building and even selling the homes to deliver faster, we are told.
At the same time, the government has named Bicester as the destination for its second new garden city. The plan to create a community of 13,000 homes in Oxfordshire - coincidentally the same county as Prime Minister David Cameron’s own constituency - follows the naming of Ebbsfleet in Kent as the first garden city in April this year.
Both announcements are to be welcomed. Housing completions in England continue to run at around half the 250,000 units needed to meet housing demand and these announcements signal government’s recognition that more action is required to help all those people desperately struggling to get on and up the housing ladder. The trialling of faster ways of making development happen and the creation of sustainable, planned communities are essential.
But for both initiatives the devil could, as ever, be in the detail. Challenges in infrastructure provision, planning consent, local politics and funding have still to be overcome before the sales brochures can be printed. New settlements may help over a decade or two, but even a fast-tracked Northstowe could take more than five years to build out.
The UK needs quick housing wins as well as medium and long term plans. One quick win could be to allow development on sites waiting and ready for development. Perhaps all of those golf courses developed by commercially-savvy farmers on Green Belt land could usefully be converted to housing? Then all those who need housing but can’t afford to belong to a golf club would be able to get some value from the Green Belt.
It’s a pipe dream of course, given the government’s affection for the Green Belt and the Conservatives’ awareness of the likely voting intentions of golf club members. But to a young London family of would-be first-time buyers scouring the estate agents every weekend for a home that they can afford, does an Oxfordshire garden city look any less of a pipe dream right now?