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National planning is essential

AGENDA Viewpoint

Radical changes are needed to meet house building targets, writes Adrian Barden

THE HOUSING situation in the UK, be it in crisis or otherwise, needs to change for reasons that are now familiar to us all.Too few houses and spiralling prices have left key workers unable to afford to live in the major conurbations and first-time buyers are priced out, leaving the market at risk of stagnation.

We are also now familiar with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister introducing reams of complex measures in an attempt to address the issue. Among the latest plans are the Homebuy Scheme, which allows council tenants to purchase 50 per cent of their home; the First Time Buyers Initiative, which involves building 15,000 homes on brownfield sites (including 100 that were previously owned by the NHS); and the challenge to contractors to build the £60,000 house. All of these schemes will no doubt yield a positive result for a select few, but the overall impression is of fiddling while Rome, or in this case the south-east of England, burns.

What we really need is a national planning agency to replace the current system which is inefficient, fragmented and prone to delay.This national body would develop and oversee a UK-wide planning strategy for all types of development - new-builds, brownfield and infills.

It would develop a national framework that looks at where people really want to live and finds planning solutions to meet demand where it exists.This is a more realistic approach than entertaining the notion that the south-east will lose its allure if only the regions can spend enough money on glossy adverts promoting a better quality of life.

The Barker report says we need 220,000 new houses a year - but we don't need these houses in places where no one wants to live.There are already thousands of houses earmarked for demolition in depressed areas; it's not just volume of houses we need, it's volume of houses where opportunities and jobs exist.

One aspect the ODPM has got right is to focus its efforts on areas like the Thames Gateway, Milton Keynes and the area between Peterborough and London.

Another nail in the coffin of housing supply is the tendency for developers to hide behind the planning process to slow down construction and keep prices inflated. Combine this with landowners who hoard their assets waiting for prices to rise even further and you're stuck.A national agency with enough clout to force such land-owners to allow development in key strategic areas, combined with a more transparent, streamlined approach to planning would eliminate these problems.

Finally - but crucially - we need to wrest power from the small but vocal NIMBY pressure groups that exert such influence over planning decisions despite representing only a self-interested minority.The inquiries sparked off by such complaints can be extraordinarily lengthy - up to three years long in some cases - and costly.While we should not abandon consultation with local community, their power and influence must be put into context.This is more easily done by a national body whose future does not depend on the dissenters' votes.

Adrian Barden is managing director of Wolseley UK