The Builders Merchants’ Federation’s policy manager, Brett Amphlett, has taken a closer look at the swathe of housing and planning policies announced last week after the appointment of Mark Prisk MP as housing minister as part of the cabinet reshuffle.
“The arrival of Mark Prisk as Housing Minister is good news for merchants,” he says. “As a chartered surveyor, his background is rooted in property and construction. Mark understands the scale of the task. He is no stranger to the BMF – and always makes time to listen to what we have to say. We hope Mark will adopt and implement practical solutions to tackle the country’s housing crisis.”
Government figures show a need to build at least 250,000 homes each year until 2033 to keep up with new households being formed. Barely 100,000 were completed last year – fewer than half the number needed to meet population, demographic and lifestyle changes.
Early BMF analysis of these announcements provides some reasons to be cheerful, says Amphlett.
For example, planning law, or permitted development rights, will be relaxed temporarily to ease time delays and unnecessary costs when doing home improvements. During the relaxation period, homeowners will be able to extend 6-8 metres beyond the property’s rear wall – depending on the property type.
An unresolved question is whether homeowners will still have to adhere to the Buildings Regulations, says Amphlett. The industry is waiting for the government’s response to its own consultation on changing them – especially Part L on energy conservation. The furore caused by The Daily Mail in reporting the proposals for energy-efficient consequential improvements on households when they have extensions and conversions carried out could be re-ignited.
For larger housing projects, builders will benefit from the temporary changes to planning gain taxes like Section 106 agreements. The aim is to allow agreements that are no longer economically-feasible in today’s difficult economic circumstances to be re-negotiated. Yet stories crop up about over-zealous local councils thwarting the wishes of self-builders unless they pay S106 monies.
One controversial step is the threat to put local authorities who delay planning applications, or take poor decisions, into ‘special measures’. This is usually the fate of under-performing schools.
In the coming months, the BMF wants to see how elected councillors in shire county and district councils interpret and implement the new arrangements. It is less than a year since the fierce public debate over the National Planning Policy Framework caused wildlife, countryside and conservation charities to challenge government proposals. So any move by Whitehall to look again at reforming the planning permission system has the potential to erupt into a blazing row.
“Any action to revive housing and home improvement has to be applauded,” says Amphlett. “Yesterday’s news may not, in itself, be the entire solution – but it will help some merchants and their customers. The primary issue is the availability of project & operating finance for businesses, and mortgages for individuals. Without it, output is constrained and aspiring first-time buyers remain frustrated.”
With the Party Political Conference season starting later this month, BMF staff look forward to learning more about the detail that lies behind yesterday’s announcements.
Amphlett recalls hearing Grant Shapps MP tell the 2009 Tory Party Conference that …”we are unashamedly pro-development … and that under a Conservative Government, Britain will become a nation of homebuilders.”
“Car-makers, aerospace and other industries are better at penetrating Whitehall & Westminster. They have big PR budgets. Construction is seen as fragmented, without a clear message,” he says. “Merchants simply must combine to fight for business-friendly conditions to survive. The BMF stands ready to help Messrs Prisk and Fallon to tackle the country’s housing and home improvement challenges. Ministers could, of course, give the economy an immediate boost by cutting VAT to 5% for building repair, maintenance & improvement work.”