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Are politicians brave enough to take on the NIMBYs?

I was recently fortunate to spend an hour talking to Chris Carr, who runs his own Grimsby housebuilder, building high quality small schemes across his region.

He is extremely busy, as the new National President of the Federation of Master Builders, who are the badge of quality for SME housebuilding in the UK, so it was great to get him on the Builders Voices podcast we run with the FMB.

One of the most illuminating parts of our chat was around how Chris has worked with his local planning authority to try and get over the manpower and time obstacles, and foster real collaboration, not enmity, with these beleaguered local civil servants.

Both Rishi and Keir claim they’ll build more homes than the other, without saying how

James Parker James Parker Managing editor of Housebuilder & Developer

An innovative approach

He told me how he has even stepped in with unruly builders in meetings with planners where they are attempting to throw their weight about. They are the whipping boys (and girls) of a broken system, and there’s no point trying to bully them.

Planners are in general working with what they’re given, they’re not out to sabotage anyone, and the openness that Chris has managed to instigate locally with planners has borne fruit.

The innovative ways to achieve and expedite decisions (and avoid email mountains) that he has landed on should really be investigated, so that things can be moved forward nationally.

Luckily, he is working closely with Government in a range of capacities, so maybe in the absence of 1000s of newly recruited planners, such ideas could become rolled out more widely. In fact, the Department of Levelling Up etc are coming to visit the authority to find out their secret.

Green elephants

But the elephant in the room is green, and it’s the Green Belt.

Many people seem religiously adhered to this as if to build on the not-always green outskirts of a town is somehow the worst possible sin. And it’s a convenient slogan for politicians to appease disgruntled local voters with.

In fact, a lot of the Belt isn’t actually Green, and the General Election will possibly see actual (or at least TV) battles over this issue like we’ve never seen before.

But in a continued cost of living crisis which is decimating housebuilders, clinging to a ‘blanket’ protection for what is really just an unremarkable bit of a town’s outskirts as the reason not to build affordable homes is hard to defend.

Sadly, many voters across the country probably see such issues as above many others, even with what’s going on across the world currently.

Both Rishi and Keir will be following this battle bus, claiming they’re going to build more homes than the other, without saying how.

Brownfield has been attacked in recent years, but the Green Belt has essentially never been touched – it now surrounds 14 of our major settlements and represents 13% of the total available land.

Unbelievably, only slightly over that amount of the Belt itself constitutes trees and green space.

Maybe we could tackle some of it, not just ‘rural exception sites,’ but an across-the-board set of parameters and permissions that loosen the belt fundamentally.

Will politicians summon the courage to clearly lay out such dispassionate, thinking before the voters this year?

Pleasing all people, all the time

The new chair of the ‘Office for Place’ at the Department for Levelling Up, Communities and Housing, Nicholas Boys Smith, seems to be taking a much more agnostic approach to the Green Belt. He has been quoted as saying that land within the Belt which is of “low or no agricultural or amenity quality” shouldn’t necessarily be protected.

Rishi of course just desperately wants to try and sound like he represents everyone at the moment. And sadly, a lot of people don’t want new homes built in their neighbourhoods.

He said recently that he will “prioritise brownfield with extra funding, and work with local communities to protect green spaces and get housing built.”

But Rishi, you won’t be able to do both everywhere, and what about more help for the construction sector with those brownfields?

The final release of the £80m brownfield regeneration pot from Government was in February, and what can the industry hope for pre-Election?

Housebuilding is down massively, and is claimed to be in recession by some, with no light at the end of the tunnel this year. Millions depend on the construction sector, and that’s millions of voters.

How do you make an omelette?

But a great many eggs are going to have to be cracked in order to deliver an omelette of new housing in the right areas.

Not everyone likes omelettes, but they are a balanced meal, and balance is what we need now, between ideal-world soundbites, and the realities for not only homebuyers, but a beleaguered new build industry, and a major chunk of the UK’s economy, namely the construction sector, which remains on the precipice of full recession.

I think people could cope with the Prime Minister and his lackeys giving a lot more detail on what they intend to do to pull construction out of its hole, if they are lucky enough to win the next Election.

In fact, such straight talking may be a key part of helping them do that.

James Parker, managing editor of Housebuilder & Developer