This morning I went along to my first General Election 2015 debate. It was organised by a group of professional bodies representing planners, architects and surveyors, and focused on the built environment’ that is housing, planning and infrastructure. It had a good line up of candidates, from the 5 main parties, and was chaired by David Garmston from BBC Points West. Whilst I didn’t expect to hear lots of new ideas and policies, I was hoping for some key pointers on how we can improve our infrastructure, build more houses and make planning a more positive and engaged process that delivers quality places. To be fair, there were some interesting points, but mostly it was just the same old stuff, the same ideas and policies that are clearly not working very well at the moment and haven’t for some time. I was left feeling slightly less than inspired and struggling to really define the difference between the main parties (I’ll exclude the Greens and UKIP from that comment, as they did stand out as different, but not necessarily in a good way).
In relation to housing, one of the things that struck me from the debate was that, if you put to one side the argument about how many houses, the solutions to the housing crisis appear to be quite simple and the candidates appeared largely to be in agreement on both the problem and the solutions. The main thrust of the discussion was around the following issues:
- It’s a problem of supply, we need to build more houses to keep up with demand
- Housing affordability is a real issue in Bristol and the West of England
- Need to focus on a mixture of tenures and types to meet the changing need
- Need to reduce resistance to new housing development by working with and engaging communities in the debate
- Need for a longer term view and vision for housing
- Incentivise house building, ‘use it or lose’ in relation to land banking
- Housebuilders not keeping up with the demand and Housing Associations not filling the gap left by local councils
Very little of this would come as a surprise to anyone involved in discussions about housing policy and development. So will anything really change after the election? Whoever is elected, there seems to be little by way of new policy ideas to help solve the housing crisis, just a restatement and reprioritising of existing policy. Where are the radical new policies that might actually make a difference? What about stopping the right to buy on all new council housing and allowing councils to borrow more so they can fund new social housing, that’s then available for all those that need it, without the fear of losing it in a few years to private landlords? What about prioritising public land and buildings for new housing developments, so the control of phasing, quality, design and planning rests with the public sector and communities rather than developers and house builders? What about changing the way we build houses, modernising our building methods to build more off site, using different skills and processes? Is it really that hard to extend our thinking beyond the very narrow confines of recent and current policy? Surely if it’s not working, it’s time for a rethink?
There was also a debate about the skills shortage and how this impacts upon the housing crisis and our ability to build new homes. The most entertaining element of the debate was definitely listening to the UKIP candidate tie himself in knots about the positives of immigration when we need people compared to the negatives they spin out most the time! Other than that there were some serious points about how the focus on encouraging people into a university education has actually been damaging to our skills base. The point being that we are losing the ‘vocational’ skills because these are somehow seen as inferior, when we should be promoting a parity of esteem for all vocational and university courses and skills.
The discussion about governance and devolution was quite encouraging and significantly different to what you would hear if you had five local councillors on the panel rather than five parliamentary candidates. Indeed, if there were any local councillors in the room I imagine they would have been somewhat annoyed and maybe a little embarrassed by the debate. The main point seemed to be that the history of the apparent inability of the four councils that make up the West of England to actually work together in any real and meaningful way has tarnished our ability to make the most of the opportunities available to us. Despite the best endeavours of the Local Enterprise Partnership, the Mayor and other council leaders, there is still clearly a very strong perception in Government that the Bristol city region has not yet got its act together. This means the potential benefits of more power, accountability, responsibility and resource are less likely to come our way and more likely to go to places like Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and others who seem to be able to put political differences to one side for the benefit of their city regions. We can’t even agree that we need a formal integrated transport authority for the Bristol city region, which to most people would seem obvious, but not to our local political leaders. Let alone agree that any other form of formal structures and agreements to cover strategic planning, housing and growth are needed or would provide any benefit to the area. There seemed to be general agreement from the panel that this leaves the city region in a position where it could well be left behind by other city regions, as they forge ahead with formal partnerships and arrangements. That’s not to say that we should just fall in line with central government dictat, but that we should be able to overcome local political differences, to do what is best for the city region – at the moment that doesn’t appear to be happening.
It was an interesting debate around some really important issues, but I can’t help but feel the confines of the debate are too narrow and we’re missing out on some of the solutions and ideas that might come from wider debate and more innovative, creative thinking.