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Boles is right to say that social justice means new homes. So let's hope his localist housing plan pays off.

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-01-10 at 08.16.47The average age of a first-time home-buyer is now 35, compared to 28 ten years ago.  Policy-makers can respond to this continuing rise in one of three main ways.  The first is to do nothing, and watch the British dream of home ownership become the preserve of the middle-aged and elderly.  The second is for the state to impose new housing on local communities by central diktat.  This would be incompatible with a free society, and is in any event impossible under the present planning framework, in which local authorities have played such a large part since 1945.  This was none the less the approach tried by the last Labour Government, with its regional spatial strategies and hosuing targets and all the rest of it.  The result was the lowest level of housebuilding since the war.

The third was set out on this site last year by Alex Morton of Policy Exchange.  Essentially, it envisages central government offers local communities money in exchange for new developments.  This is the approach that Nick Boles, who became Planning Minister last September, is taking.  Yesterday evening, he set out some of the details on Newsnight: neighbourhood groups will be offered a slice of the Community Infrastructure Levy in return for approving development plans, and local people will be asked to back them in a referendum.  Boles is a former Director of Policy Exchange, and the move reflects its long-held localist convictions.  I have been supportive of the scheme on this site and in the Daily Telegraph, though I was doubtful whether Boles would get approval either from CLG or, more importantly, the Treasury.

This is because (on the one hand) some local councillors and planners will be resistant to powers being devolved to a yet more local level, and CLG has an institutional bias in their favour and (on the other) the Treasury is centralist: its instincts are to demand the building of a certain number of houses by a certain date, and to seek to drive construction through from the centre.  So it is to the credit of Boles that he has been able to get George Osborne's approval for his scheme.  The Plannning Minister is a tall poppy: coming young politicians are not always popular with their colleagues, and there are plenty who would have been happy to see Boles frustrated by the system.  But the Treasury is desparate for growth, which may explain why he has been able to build on the work of his localist predecessor, Greg Clark, who deserves a mention in dispatches.

As ever, the demons are in the detail.  For example, it isn't easy to establish where the boundaries of a local community lie - an important matter to establish if the benefits of 106 Agreements are be concentrated more narrowly.  Above all, the Treasury has to stump up enough cash to make the deal worthwhile for local people.  This problem has already reared its head in relation to the New Homes Bonus.  It may well be that local communities prize their green space above new gains (finding a permanent home for community shops, refurbishing municipal swimming pools, save local pubs, and so on), such is the cultural resistance in England to building on sites other than brownfield ones.  Nor is shortage of space the only reason for the rise in prices: family break-up and immigration are powerful factors.

Boles will acknowledge this in a speech to Policy Exchange later today, pointing out that Labour increased the population of Britain through immigration by 3.8 million.  In his book, Which Way's Up?, he proposed that non-EU migrants pay a surety deposit, that some EU migrants should be told to leave Britain, and that no immigrants should be eligible for social housing until five years after arrival.  But it is pure special interest pleading to claim that Britain's housing demand can be met simply by building on brownfield.  The truth is that as long as the value of land remains a one-way bet for developers, prices will continue to rise.  Boles is right to frame the lack of new homes as one of the great social justice issues of our times.  This hasn't always won him friends.  But now his boldness may have paid off.


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