Guest interview, with Matthew Taylor
We caught up with Lord Matthew Taylor about the latest housing policy development, which he continues to influence on a national and local level. A former MP for Truro and St Austell and chairman of the National Housing Federation, Lord Taylor originated the government’s new Garden Villages policy and has been a long-standing champion of rural communities. Our Account Director Steve Jolly asks the questions…
SJ: Tell us about the work you’ve been involved in recently.
MT: Over the last decade whilst leading the rural planning review for the Labour Government and the new Planning Practice guidance for the coalition, I kept coming back to thinking that to solve the housing crisis, to get public support for development and to create great communities, we had to do better than ring historic settlements with bland, poor quality housing estates.
The thought just wouldn’t go away and that led me to publish last year my proposals for new Garden Villages – scaled to be deliverable and attractive places to meet local needs.
SJ: Where do you see the housing industry today?
MT: Trapped by the results of well-intentioned policies that constrained land supply in a way that makes homes unaffordable and sees land values gobble up resource that should go into great placemaking. And we are not even delivering half the homes we need. This isn’t housebuilders’ fault, though some could be more enlightened about quality place-making. The real problem lies with the unintended consequences of a planning system that has proved unfit for purpose.
SJ: As a former Cornish MP, you’re acutely aware of the housing challenges faced by rural communities. How can these be best addressed?
MT: My 2008 planning review ‘Living Working Countryside’ challenged government to simplify the system and allow parishes the right to bring forward affordable housing. That was seized by the Conservative party through the NPPF, neighbourhood planning and support for sustainable development, but there are omissions.
It is vital that parishes can be sure that land provided for affordable homes will guarantee they stay affordable. Whilst the NPPF rightly says local authorities can’t ignore housing need, it is also vital that they get genuine choices as to how (not if) they address this.
Housing is often resisted for fear it will be poor quality and on the fields most important to people. Garden Villages policy is about listening a little more and imposing a little less, to create new settlements in places that capture land value uplift to make them genuinely attractive, thriving new communities.
SJ: I know you didn’t support the Brexit vote, for all sorts of reasons. How do you think the housing sector should respond to it?
MT: Private Eye recently brilliantly parodied the present mood with a mock headline saying ‘No major effect from Brexit so far’ and quoting the Office for National Statistics saying this is because it hasn’t happened yet. Private Eye is right, and many of the harshest impacts are likely to be in the far South West where we have had the highest levels of regeneration spending.
As the impacts materialise, confidence and spending is bound to be hit. House building is more impacted by this than many other sectors, with knock on consequences for the economy. This means fewer homes will be built, but not that there will be fewer needed. We will need to find ways to keep delivering.
SJ: You’ve been involved in delivering the government’s Garden Villages initiative; what’s new about this and do you think it will work?
MT: The key is that it’s not new. It’s a modern take on the prescription that was written when planning was first introduced! Until the Second World War we delivered lots of homes in new suburbs. In too many places these sprawled around communities and people felt they lacked a sense of place. The planning act sought to control this, by stopping sprawl though green belts and development control and delivering new settlements.
By the late 1970s there were enough homes and prices were relatively affordable. So they abandoned the new towns programme and extended the green belt massively. As people started to live much longer and the new baby boom took hold, we needed more homes and both sides of the old planning coin (stopping sprawl but building new communities) were forgotten.
My proposal is to go back to protecting the historic settlements we care about and building great new places. Of course, in the 21st century these Garden Villages and Towns should be locally led and highly sustainable. But the coin is exactly the one planning policy originally envisaged.
SJ: So where do we go from here? What’s the three things that should happen to address the housing crisis?
MT: First, allow communities to protect places they care about, but insist they provide homes local people need.
Second, to do this enable the creation of great new Garden Towns and Villages where enough increase in land value is captured to pay for facilities needed for a sustainable, thriving community.
Finally, make it easier and quicker to regenerate derelict urban areas with Government help with land remediation to ensure viability.
This would mean much more attractive development, with less unpopular impacts and facilities paid for through the uplift in land values. I could add a lot of detail – but this approach unlocks the essentials to overcome the housing crisis and to do so attractively.
These are things policy has long failed to achieve, to put it bluntly.