Housing crisis means planning policy is becoming a major political issue – Murdo Fraser MSP

The recent shock defeat for the Conservatives in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, where the Lib Dems overturned a 16,000 majority to win with a 25 per cent swing, was attributed to the unpopularity of the UK Government’s planning reforms.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey and the party's new MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green, celebrate after a shock by-election victory over the Conservatives (Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire)
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey and the party's new MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green, celebrate after a shock by-election victory over the Conservatives (Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire)

In this part of leafy Buckinghamshire, within the London commuter belt, local residents were concerned about the prospects of more housebuilding bringing with it problems of congestion and overcrowding.

When it comes to the issue of housing, the government faces the classic dilemma. It is self-evident that as a country we need to be building more homes.

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We have a growing population, and households are, on average, getting smaller, with more people living by themselves and families separating, amounting to a cumulative, rapidly growing demand for more places to live. The issue is particularly acute in those areas of the country with the greatest economic opportunity, such as London and the south-east of England.

Conversely, for people living in these areas, there is significant opposition to more homes being constructed. Those who have invested heavily in securing a property in a corner of our “green and pleasant land” do not want to see fields and woodland disappearing under yet more concrete and tarmac, apparently oblivious to the irony that the homes they themselves live in occupy land which was at one time used for grazing or growing crops.

The overall effect of this tension is evident in the heated property market we have in many parts of the country, where an excess of demand over supply drives prices ever upwards.

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This is by no means an issue restricted to the south of England; across many parts of Scotland we are seeing leaps in house prices this year, and in many parts of the country properties are being sold within days, if not hours, of going on the market.

Rising property prices have been a great benefit to those of my and my parents’ generation, able to purchase homes when they were relatively affordable, and now seeing large sums in equity built up. For the younger generation, they have been a disaster.

Home ownership is now a distant dream for many; and the need for 10 per cent deposits has meant that the average age of the first-time buyer is now in the mid-30s. It is a classic example of intergenerational unfairness.

The solution to all this should be simple: where demand exceeds supply, then supply must be increased. And essentially this is what the UK Government has been trying to do, to make planning for new housing developments easier to obtain.

Yet it is these reforms which have generated a backlash from those who might say they are concerned about the inability of younger people to afford homes, but when it comes down to it have no interest in seeing the status quo disrupted. Given the political importance of the older generations, it is a brave government indeed that takes on their vested interests, as we have seen.

So what is to be done? How is the circle to be squared, to ensure that there are homes for all who need them, and yet local communities do not feel swamped by the pressure from large-scale housing developments? It is an acute and relevant issue which today faces residents in Edinburgh and across the east of Scotland, where demand for housing, and soaring prices, is as much an issue as it is further south.

Enabling development on brownfield sites is certainly part of the solution, albeit a very small one, but it would be naïve to pretend that we can meet housing demand without green fields being developed.

Within Scotland, local authorities have responsibility for planning, with an obligation to produce detailed local plans setting out how they will zone land for future development to meet housing demand.

To many of the public, these processes seem opaque if not obscure. While lip service is paid to consultation, it is only the most engaged in local communities who tend to be aware of how and when decisions are taken. And there are examples of local plans being disregarded, whether locally or on appeal to Scottish ministers, which calls into question the whole issue of local democracy and accountability.

The answer must be greater transparency and public engagement in the whole planning process, to avoid a situation where the first that the public become aware of a potential development is when they read about it in their local press, and subsequently deluge the local planning office with letters of objection. That is going to mean planning departments being better resourced, and having more ability to engage with local residents.

Being a planning officer must be a thankless task. In my work as an MSP, I often see communications from constituents fired in to the local authority, with long lists of detailed questions about whether a particular planning application meets with relevant policies.

Anecdotally, I am aware of planning officers who refuse to answer the phone to members of the public because they simply cannot cope with the volume of work that they are required to deal with.

A better-resourced planning system would not be the entirety of the answer, but it would at least improve public confidence in the system. If that means higher planning fees being ring-fenced to employ more staff, then I’m sure that many developers would regard that as a price worth paying, and it would certainly be welcomed by the public.

Ultimately, there will always be tensions in planning between the national need for more homes to be built, and the understandable desire on the part of each of us to protect what we have.

But if we are to have a fairer country, and one in which younger generations have the opportunities that those of us who are older once enjoyed, then the current system has to change.

Murdo Fraser is Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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