As a vision, 2020 certainly has a rather nice clarity to it. And the Government’s latest initiatives to create 200,000 new homes annually by that magic date will clearly have caught the blinking eye of an industry still adjusting to the bright lights after being kept in the dark for far too long.
All the focus will now be directed firmly on the nation’s biggest builders, of course, who will be expected to ramp up their operations overnight, and start delivering houses on a scale not seen for more than thirty years. That’s in spite of profound shortages of skilled tradespeople across the board, existing land banks seemingly increasingly prone to climate change and, of course, the vociferous cries of the “not in my back yard” brigade.
Highly significant as all of these issues are, however, there is perhaps an even greater obstacle to the Government achieving its targets over the next five years. Namely the alarming demise of the small local builder/developer.
Back in the late eighties, around two thirds of all new properties in this country were constructed by what was defined as small/medium house builders. Today, the market is dominated by eight top contractors who build more than 50 per cent of all new homes. In fact, latest figures suggest that last year only 2,710 small independent builders were active.
A dearth of reasonably priced land, complex, long and drawn out planning processes, and the lack of reasonable access to funds in recent years, have all taken their toll on SMEs whose efforts now account for only a quarter of new builds.
And yet these are just the sort of homes which are most desirable to young people hoping to get a foothold on the property ladder, located as they are in the very villages and hamlets they have grown up around, surrounded by family members and close to existing amenities and services.
The speculative builder, once so active in his local community, with a first-hand grasp of its planning nooses and needs is at real risk of becoming an endangered species.
Similar concerns are also being expressed in the custom home or self-build market, where again local builders have traditionally played a key role in helping their clients to realise the dream. Figures for 2015 show planning applications down by almost 30 per cent on the peak period of 2010, as similar obstacles have become all too apparent.
It’s something we have referred to on numerous occasions in the past – it is all very well embarking on a campaign to construct thousands of new reasonably priced homes but they have to be in places where people can make not only a life but a living.
Every new town first and foremost needs places of employment, yet equally crucial are support services, such as schools, hospitals and civic amenities which, let’s face it, have their own issues right now in attracting both personnel and new investment.
It’s one of the reasons why it is so good to see the Government at last waking up to the need to rejuvenate so-called brownfield sites. A £1.2billion fund will be used to prepare these previously non-viable sites for new first timer homes, kick starting regeneration and enabling planning permission to be secured more quickly in already established urban sites.
It is essential that this land, available through direct commissioning, must first be broken down into small and micro plots wherever possible because, as the housing minister himself has stated: “The smaller the site, the quicker it will get built.”
Hardly rocket science, but after years of paying lip service to the housing crisis, we will all happily settle for even the briefest snippet of “small talk” from the Government.