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Sir Michael Lyons, drafting Labour plan for more homes, calls for 'muscular action'
Sir Michael Lyons, the former chairman of the BBC who is overseeing in Salford one of the largest urban developments in Europe, is by temperament a practical man. He promises he is not interested in “building castles in the air”, but constructing a realistic blueprint for more than 200,000 houses a year being built in England by 2020.
Appointed by Ed Miliband to prepare a plan for Labour to implement in power, he starts by stressing the need for the country collectively to grasp the scale of the problem.
He told the Guardian: “We do need some of the enthusiasm we had in the years immediately after the second world war where we saw it as a duty of government to encourage housebuilding on a much bigger scale.
“The figures are compelling. We are producing half the houses that we need to keep up with the current rate of household formation, let alone to deal with the backlog.
“Frankly we do need to push the issue of housing much more aggressively up the national agenda, and that is the case for all three parties.
“We know that within living memory we produced in this country at its peak 400,000 homes a year. What appears to have happened through four or five economic cycles is the number of homes we have produced as you move through those cycles has dropped lower and lower.
“That suggests there are problems in the capacity of the industry to produce, complicated in part by upturns and then the rapid downturns. But there is also something wrong in this country with the process about bringing land forward.
“One of the things that Ed Miliband has got right is to recognise that we are simply not going to make progress in this area without some rather muscular action. Everybody is increasingly pessimistic about our ability to meet our necessary housing requirements just by doing more of what we currently do.”
That suggests Lyons knows he will need some radical solutions in terms of finance, institutional reforms and finding a settlement that allows local communities to directly benefit from development, but only in return for reducing their veto.
The two immediate areas identified for some muscular action by Ed Miliband are land banking and providing a right to grow, so mainly rural councils cannot block expansion of urban councils.
Lyons said: “The problem is that land that could be developed does not always fit neatly inside the boundaries of an existing local authority – it very often straddles boundaries.
“Some urban settlements historically have been drawn very tightly and if they are to grow that means very often finding agreement from their neighbouring authorities for that growth to take place. Now in some parts of the country you can see some really good practice, but in other parts there is clearly just entrenched opposition. There is a duty to co-operate, but it appears not to be enough.
“Basically if we want to move up to 200,000 homes a year and beyond that we simply cannot have a situation where communities are holding the whole nation to ransom. The trouble is that we know if you really do want to increase the number of houses we do have to contemplate new and rather bigger settlements than before.
“Right up to the late sixties there really was a national ambition to house the nation, and at the time we were clear that sometimes the national interest will have to take precedence over local interest. It is very important that local communities have a voice in that process but voice cannot mean an absolute veto.” He senses the public mood is changing and recognises that unless something is done hundreds of thousands are going to be deprived of a home at a price they can afford.
Lyons is more cautious about how much he agrees that the hoarding of land by builders is a serious barrier to growth, saying he wants to drill down into the issue, including Labour’s plan to tell developers to “use it or lose it”. But he points out: “At the moment there are 500,000 houses that have planning permission and half of those have not started. There is evidence that many of these houses are not in the hands of builders, they are in the hands of other parties that might not have any intention of building.”
He praises a study by Moliar for the mayor of London showing that 45% of the homes with planning permission “are in the control of firms that are not builders – firms such as owner-occupiers, investment funds, historic land owners, government and ‘developers’ who do not build”.
The Tories have criticised any suggestion that unused land with planning permission could be purchased compulsorily, but Lyons points out that the planning minister Nick Boles has decided that to reverse the last Labour government’s decision to allow planning permissions to be rolled over for more than three years.
“Privately Boles must believe there is a problem to be tackled or otherwise why would reverse that decision?” Lyons also defends compulsory purchase powers so councils can take control of land not being used by developers, saying “such tools have always been central to large scale developments”.
Lyons is clear that the package he produces will include plans for a fresh wave of new towns. “We need a bigger calibre response and a new generation of new towns is likely to part of that package. There are something like two million people living in 35 popular new towns. This might require urban development corporations – they were pretty single-minded organisations and were given quite substantial powers to get on with the job of building and were able to do it without negotiating neighbouring authorities.”
He believes there is not one magic solution to the problems in the building and planning market, and even though he has recruited an impressive array of experts to sit on the commission, he only has until late summer to draw up his proposals.