So, here we are. After months of speculation, manifesto pledges, and - finally - the general election, the new government is in place, and their housebuilding policy has been unveiled. Sajid Javid, the new Business Secretary in the first all-Tory government since the 1990s, has announced an emphasis on brownfield sites as a location for housing developers. This was a manifesto pledge, so was not unexpected. However, the real surprise was Javid's statement that major housing projects on brownfield sites will be fast-tracked through the planning process.
Clearly, this is a big win not just for the housing industry but for Britain as a whole, as the housing crisis continues to rumble along without an obvious solution in sight. The practice of effectively allowing contractors quick access to brownfield land is an extreme solution, and one that has naturally attracted its critics. Understandable given the circumstances, after all, there are concerns that slacker restrictions could lead to a shoddier end product, leaving future tenants in sub-standard housing built on land that hasn't been remediated properly. However, for too long governments past and present have dithered over the issue of housing, so it is good to at least see one workable solution, no matter how difficult it may be. I'm a big supporter of the brownfield solution, and have previously written blogs about it, which you can read here, and here.
So what is brownfield land? Put simply, it is disused industrial land which can be reclaimed for residential or commercial development. It is a popular choice among housing developers because it is cheap, and typically easier to secure planning permission for - especially now that the government's housing policy is changing. This is a popular alternative to exploiting greenfield (or green belt) land, that is, undeveloped land which is typically harder to secure planning permission for. In addition to the red tape preventing its exploitation, it's also a controversial issue among environmentalists, who see it as the destruction of natural environments.
So, why should housing developers be able to build on brownfield land with almost no barriers standing in their way? It's not an ideal situation, I agree. However, the fact of the matter is that Britain is not building enough new homes to deal with the rising population. A lack of new homes has driven the average cost of housing up, forcing many people - especially in London - into the expensive private rental sector. The average cost of a house is £179,696 according to the Land Registry. The most recent ONS statistics show that the median gross annual income is £27,200; even a household containing a couple on a combined wage wouldn't come close to touching the sides of the cost needed to buy a home without years of dedicated saving.
Despite the fact that many young people face the prospect of never owning a property, there is a far more serious issue to contend with; homelessness. Indeed, a report by Just Fair - a consortium of housing and welfare charities - says that the severity of the housing crisis means that the UK is breaching its own commitment to the United Nations to provide adequate housing.
The report found that rough sleeping in London increased by over a third between 2013 and 2014, and that nationwide the rising levels of homelessness are 'exceptionally high'. Not only that, but 280,000 households - that is groups of people who live together such as families or couples - are at risk of homelessness. This is due in part to the fact that private rents are typically very high due to the demand. So high in fact, that a staggering quarter of tenants have to claim housing benefit to keep a roof over their head.
Critics of Mr Javid's plans point to the fact that there's not enough brownfield land to solve the crisis. This may be true, but I'd say that his critics are just playing politics. Even if it can't solve the entire housing crisis, it's a start, and I fail to see exactly what is wrong with that. The government need to be careful that enough planning regulations are left in place to guarantee that the housing is of a good standard and the land is sufficiently remediated. We need to drop the political point scoring and form a cross party consensus on a policy that could genuinely start getting some homeless people back on their feet, make private renting more affordable, and get the younger generation on their way to earning their first home.
Simon Thomas is the Managing Director of Asset International, a leading manufacturer of large diameter plastic pipes. Asset International Ltd supplies bespoke designs to the water and construction industries, from surface drainage to foul sewers and inter-process pipework: www.weholite.co.uk