My Lords, let me say at the start that I do not claim to be an expert in the intricacies of housing supply. I would like to express my gratitude to the many people and organisations that supplied information to me ahead of this debate—even if justice cannot be done to it in a six-minute speech limit. However, at least I feel better informed.
I cannot really judge whether the reason for housing targets not being met is land supply, the planning system, outdated construction methods, the alleged perverse effects of stamp duty rates and Help to Buy schemes, or any other factor. All I know, and am deeply concerned about, is that there are many parts of the country where a housing shortage persists, and for 40 years I represented one of them in the other place.
I cut my political teeth on the notion of a property-owning democracy. Through experience, I have learned the need for a well-stocked rental sector. It has been a bitter disappointment to me that in the district of Uttlesford—the predominant housing authority in the constituency of Saffron Walden that I represented—there has hardly ever been a time when there were fewer than 1,000 names on the housing waiting list. The median house price in Uttlesford is £410,000; put another way, that is 12 times average earnings. More and more young people are being denied, despite the district council generally doing the right things: it has built council houses and entered partnerships with housing associations. I would like to instance the Hastoe Housing Association in particular, which has introduced many small schemes for shared ownership or subsidised rent in many of the villages of this predominantly rural constituency. Last year, 700 houses were built, of which around 250 were classified as affordable. That puts Uttlesford in line with the government target of 14,000 more dwellings by 2033.
Supply and demand, however, remain completely out of balance. The demand is fed by Uttlesford’s reputation as being one of the most desirable places in the country in which to live: its proximity to London makes it a tempting destination for people who want to move from an urban to a rural environment, and it has a robustly healthy local economy, with jobs aplenty. The need for more housing is obvious—except perhaps to people who already have the advantage of living in the district. Controversy has stalked every attempt by the council to find ways of satisfying the increasing demands of successive Governments. However, of Uttlesford’s 250 square mile extent, only 7% has been taken by housing to date. Some might have it that corn is giving way to concrete—but we are a long way from that.
It is understandable, I accept, that there is a desire on the part of homeowners and those in long-term rental accommodation to protect the status quo. But the hostility to new housing schemes has led to the formation of populist resistance groups which are clear as to what they are against but absolutely vague as to what they favour. It is deeply unfortunate that the supply of homes has become subject to a bitter political battle.
The resistance that has been stoked up stems from the failure of infrastructure to march hand in hand with housing construction. Fed with expectations, be they realistic or otherwise, that new communities will be blessed with roads, schools, medical centres, transport services, convenience stores, pubs and community centres, local hopes are regularly dashed. People who are promised better and receive worse harden their hearts towards government, local authorities and developers. Here, I find myself very interested in and sympathetic to the remarks made a few moments ago by my noble friend Lord Borwick.
I will cite some examples from Uttlesford. Flitch Green is a development on an old sugar beet factory site. The developers wanted more houses and kept putting in applications saying that these could be put on land that had been designated for playing fields. Gradually, the amenities were squeezed out to get more houses, and there was a continuous battle over that development. In Tudor Park, a new development in the town of Saffron Walden, the houses were not built to the best of standards and there were continuing complaints from the owners who moved in about the general amenities around, the bad finishing of pavements and—the final insult—that the green area meant for play and other purposes was left looking like a builders’ tip. In 1991, there was also the arrival of the third London airport at Stansted. Had this been accompanied by improvements in infrastructure, people might not have minded so much. But the railway service deteriorates; it does not get better.
I suggest that much has to be done if people are to become enthusiastic and persuaded that development can be carried out sensitively and with palpable benefits, perhaps even for members of their own family. I hope that, in his summing up tonight, my noble friend will ensure that the garden community concept will achieve that end.