Liberal Hero of the Week #28: Nick Boles

by Stephen Tall on January 11, 2013

ImageLiberal Hero of the Week is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. The series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention.

nick boles

Nick Boles

Conservative Planning Minister
Reason: For aiming to increase the supply of housing while promoting localism.

I was a councillor for 8 years. During that time I learned one thing above all: there is no more vexed issue, nothing more likely to pitch neighbour against neighbour, than planning applications. That is especially true of new housing, where even the most sane and humane people — good folk who every other day of the week will understand the basic human desire to shelter under a roof you can call your own — will begin frothing at the spectre of that roof being located close to their own roof. That Nimbyism is a big party of the reason we have a chronic housing shortage in the UK which works out pretty well for the ‘haves’ in this country (insulating our house prices) and is devastating for the ‘have-nots’ (who can’t afford even the first-rung the prices on the housing ladder).

Kudos, then, to Conservative planning minister Nick Boles for addressing the argument head on: we need to build more houses; but we need to try and do so in a way which is acceptable to existing communities.

It is estimated this country needs to build a net 250,000 new houses each year to meet demand, chiefly triggered by the explosion in single-person households as a result of folk living longer and families splitting up. In the decade 2000-10, an average of 147,000 were built annually, only a little more than half what is needed. Here’s how Mr Boles described the consequences of this for the ‘have-nots’ in our society in a speech at the Policy Exchange think-tank yesterday:

We can decide to ignore the misery of young families forced to grow up in tiny flats with no outside space. We can pass by on the other side while working men and women in their twenties and thirties have to live with their parents or share bedrooms with friends. We can turn a blind eye while Margaret Thatcher’s dream of a property-owning democracy shrivels. And shrug our shoulders as home ownership reverts to what it was in the 19th Century: a privilege, the exclusive preserve of people with large incomes or wealthy parents.

If we accept that social justice imperative there’s only one option: find more houses. But how? Let’s look at the easy choices first, the ones which don’t involve finding any new sites for new houses. Nick Boles takes them in turn… Bring empty homes back into use? Sure, but there are only 259,000 currently which have been empty for more than six months — that’s one year’s supply. Better use of brown-field sites? Sure, but there’s space for only 450,000 in those areas of highest demand (in London and the South-East and South-West of England) — that’s less than two years’ supply. Get developers to release their landbanks? Sure, but detailed planning permission exists for 487,000 housing units to be built in the coming 3-5 years — less than half of what will be needed over that time.

The problem remains: we need to find new land to build new houses. Government can try and do that by diktat, top-down targets that bulldoze — quite literally — through local opposition, but only after a lot of time and money and good-will has been wasted. Or it can try and do that through incentives, just as Tim Leunig (formerly of the CentreForum parish) advocated through his proposal for community land auctions.

Nick Boles’ proposal is both carrot and stick. He starts with the stick:

As they draw up their local plans, councils must assess their local housing need in an objective way. And they must identify immediately developable sites sufficient to supply all of the new homes that are needed over the next 5 years. … I am not going to pretend that it will be easy for them. Councillors will have to find a way to persuade the people who elect them that substantial further house-building is in the interest of the whole community, including those who are living there now.

Ouch. But then here comes the carrot. It depends on communities drawing up their own neighbourhood plan, and putting it to a referendum of all their neighbours. If approved, then:

… because I believe that neighbourhood plans are the key to unlocking more house-building, those communities that draw up a neighbourhood plan and have it approved by local people in a referendum will receive 25% of these revenues with no upper limit. If you want to re-roof your village hall, build a permanent home for your community shop, refurbish the municipal swimming pool, implement a new landscape design in your local park or save your local pub, look no further.

There will be lots of debate about the detail of these proposals. But the principles — new housing to address social need, driven through neighbourhood plans from which communities will tangibly benefit — is a whole lot more liberal than Our Man in Whitehall sticking pins in maps.

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

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