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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Black

The Sussexes and the war on Housing Numbers

No not the latest Netflix mini series (although it would be great wouldn’t it?) but instead a thoroughly interesting debate in parliament last week with a very interesting exchange between two Sussex MPs and our new housing minister.

Draw up a chair, grab some popcorn and I’ll walk you through it.

Initially, I was worried that this might be a case of the older ‘pupils’ looking for some ‘fagging’ from the new housing minister as he settles in to his new role but it was actually far more detailed and nuanced than that.

So first up in the debate was Nusrat Ghani*, MP for Wealden in East Sussex since 2015. Ghani is clearly alive to the issue of housing requirement and ONS figures and put this point to the housing minister:

One of the big points that I need the Minister to respond to is about the population growth calculation. I am deeply concerned about how the statistics are used by the Department. Based on the Department’s standard method, Wealden’s share is 1,221 new houses each year. However, the standard method uses Office for National Statistics population projection data from 2014 that show that between 2021 and 2031, a total of 212,739 new houses are needed each year for the whole of England. However, the corresponding figure in the latest data, which are for 2018, shows a reduction of 161,048 houses per annum—a reduction of 24%. According to the 2014 ONS projections, Wealden’s share was 872 houses per year, whereas the 2018 projection is for 598 houses per year, an even larger reduction of 31%. Ignoring the reduction just does not make sense, and I hope the Minister can confirm what data the Department is using. If there is not the population need for the homes, what is the justification for the Department’s data and the pressure on Wealden District Council?

According to current targets, 24,500 houses are scheduled across Wealden District Council between 2018 and 2038. To put that into context, 24,500 homes is equivalent to approximately one home for every 2.8 already in the district. Let us just think about how that would ever make sense, because I do not know how such numbers are meant to stack up. From 2017-18 to 2019-20, the requirement for new houses for Wealden went up from 499 to 1,236—an increase of 226%. Those targets are incredibly high and one could even say slightly absurd considering the jump. I hope the Minister will explain to us how the targets are set.

She is right, the ONS figures are decreasing and the housing figures do seem high so I don’t criticise her for making this point. However, as she shows, this is about an overall housing figure in national terms. Equally, it is also about recognising that there has been a significant shortfall both locally and nationally for a long time with the result being significant demand-push house price inflation and significant housing need, particularly for affordable housing.

Notwithstanding the large increase in deliveries of new houses, Wealden Council was unable to deliver the quota demanded by the Department, as it achieved 83% for the housing delivery test. Wealden was therefore penalised with an increase to its five-year land supply by a buffer of 20%, resulting in a five-year land supply figure of 7,440. Moreover, planning applications are often granted but not built out for a number of years. Although Wealden did achieve 83%, it has approved many more houses than that, and it is essential that those approvals are also included in the overall numbers.

Again, all factually correct and a realisation that, for now, we are in a system that is both backward looking, through the housing delivery test, and forward looking, through the requirement to demonstrate a five year housing land supply.

At Wealden District Council, more than 7,600 permissions have been given for new homes, but not all of them are being built right now. During the past two years especially we have seen understandable delays in construction due to the disruptions of covid and supply chain issues. The projected completions within five years currently amount to 3.6 years’ supply. We need to ensure that all homes that have been granted consent will count towards the forward targets and the five-year land supply as well. Over the last seven years, along with the council, I have repeatedly asked the Department to respond to this point, which will help Wealden council put together a more realistic housing plan, where the numbers will not be bounced around, which would stress constituents out even more. I hope the Minister will respond to that as well.

Of course not all 7,600 homes would be built now and yes there have been issues with supply but the government has been more than accommodating with these delays in providing a 4 month reduction in the latest Housing Delivery Test result. I’m also convinced that the council has made sure that every single home granted permission is in their 5 year housing land supply.

We talked about Wealden achieving just 83% of the housing delivery test, but only one authority in East Sussex has avoided continued Government sanctions for failing to meet the housing targets. Four out of the five local planning authorities in East Sussex have failed to deliver the housing requirement in the years up to March 2021. Hastings Borough Council and Rother District Council fell below 75% of their target, building an average of less than 200 dwellings a year, which compares to the 800 that Wealden is doing at the same time, yet those areas receive additional Government support for infrastructure, whereas Wealden does not, because they traditionally fall into the metrics of deprivation. I hope the Minister can explain why, when a council achieves 83% compared with 75% in neighbouring authorities, it is further penalised and does not secure infrastructure funding. We need to have the right incentives in place for good councils.

Now that is a key issue and you can see Ghani’s point on this. It would appear that some authorites have been given more support for providing less housing than those who have not quite provided enough (it made sense in my head!). Ghani then briefly ‘gave way’ to Caroline Ansell, MP for Eastbourne since the 2019 intake. Eastbourne of course being completely surrounded by Wealden on 3 sides and the sea on the other. She had this to say

I thank my hon. Friend and very dear parliamentary neighbour for giving way. I commend her on her tireless campaigning for Wealden to ensure there is sustainable and appropriate development. I know the pressure that Wealden is under, and part of that is because of Eastbourne, where we are constrained by the sea and downland, so it is challenging to deliver on the numbers.

This led to a response and pleas from Ghani as follows:

My hon. Friend and neighbour makes a very valid point. I am going to ask the Minister to consider putting in forward infrastructure funding before developments are fully developed, to ensure that our communities benefit from the new homes that are coming. Of course, Eastbourne has the sea, but it could also—I urge my lovely neighbour to consider this—build up so that we do not have to build out into the area of outstanding natural beauty in Wealden.

Ghani went on to eloquently set out the issues of infrastructure within her constituency and the wider Sussex sub-region. An insight into the issues of Duty to Co-operate here and a classic case of ‘up or out’ as we very often hear.

These are my asks of the Minister: first, let us make housing targets advisory, not mandatory. Let us link Government funding, whether the towns fund, school funding, infrastructure, jobs and healthcare, to councils that build homes. Let us incentivise them; let us adapt the proposed infrastructure levy to ensure that infrastructure is provided before homes are built—the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne.

Not too much to disagree with there. Provision of infrastructure increasingly becoming a key area of objection for those who can at least cope with housing being in/near their back yard. Not quite the YIMBIES but at least well informed objectors.

Let us help last-time buyers, as well as first-time buyers, by examining measures to encourage elderly homeowners to downsize by providing a stamp duty exemption or reduction. Let us reduce rates on the top end of stamp duty. People cannot afford to move when their circumstances change, because they simply cannot afford the stamp duty. Let us outlaw gazumping. Let us improve schemes to help housing associations, and Wealden Council, which has its own housing company, to develop and build bungalows. Let us have “use it or lose it” planning permissions. Let us prioritise low-carbon house building.

We do of course already have use it or lose it permissions but the problem is that you get 3 years. More if you allow for a Reserved Matters and phased completion. A further problem is that we still have a system which allows implementation of a permission with relatively little ease (clear you conditions, pay your s106 and dig a few trenches here and there and lay some foundations). Once you’ve done that you can (in many instances) sit on your permission and not have to build any houses at all.

Lastly, and mostly importantly for Wealden, let us adapt current rules to fix situations where a council has given planning permission for sites that are not developed, but the council then faces Government censure when developers are at fault for refusing to build out those permissions. Let us include permissions granted for new homes in the housing number allocations. As mentioned, Wealden District Council has given 7,600 permissions for new homes; they have not all been built yet, but they are on their way. Will the Minister ensure that those are not only allocated within overall targets but go towards the overall five-year land supply, as well?

So what did our new housing minister make of these well considered points and how did he respond? Well putting aside the usual sycophantic brown nosing that takes up far too much time in parliament we did get some indications of government thinking on some of what was said. The minister reminded the house of the continued target of 300,000 a year (183,250 completions in year to June 2021 since you ask) and the importance to get a plan in place and demonstrating a five year housing land supply. He also reminded us that we can expect a review of the Community Infrastructure Levy soon. But we’ve all been waiting for that for bloody ages now right? But then he lobbed in this grenade:

For as long as local authorities fail to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply, they will be more at risk of appeals and speculative planning applications being successful. That said, we are reviewing the planning system, including the role of the five-year housing land supply policy, and considering its alignment with and support of the levelling-up agenda.

So now we wait for another review of things (I wonder is Sue Gray knows much about sub regional population projections and 5YHLS?). But how would a review of five-year housing land supply policy help with levelling up. In its door-stop of a white paper on Levelling Up there was no mention of this. But frankly, how would it help? A reduction in five year housing would help his honourable friends in Sussex but how would they help those in housing need. But also if that 300,000 home target is to be kept where does he suggest they go. The other problem is that this is exactly what a lot of hesitant local authorities want to hear isnt it? As I have previously reported, many local authorities have put the brakes on new local plans whilst the government makes up its mind on where housing requirements are heading.

Either this government has some grand plan up its sleeve, in which case they should spell it out, or they don’t. Unfortunately I still suspect the latter.

* It's not just Nicola Gooch who loves a footnote. Fun fact for you - Nusrat Ghani is married to David Wheeldon. So the MP for Wealden is actually Mrs Wheeldon


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