In his first interview since becoming the new joint planning and housing minister, Brandon Lewis talks about his role, council housebuilding and what can be learned from Stirling Prize-winning schemes
How will joining planning and housing help tackle the housing crisis?
In 2010 we inherited a planning system in need of radical reform, which is why Greg Clark and Nick Boles were appointed dedicated planning ministers. We have now implemented these reforms and got Britain building. My focus is to maintain momentum across the industry; continuing to speed up planning decisions, getting builders back on sites, or helping people buy their own homes.
Do you think enough is being learned from award-winning housing projects like Accordia?
There are a number of exciting, innovative projects around the country using new technologies and building methods to deliver homes that are often greener and built more quickly. Of course I want to see the lessons from projects like these spread across the house building industry.
Has enough been done to help local authorities boost their own house building schemes?
Council house building starts are already at a 23-year high and I am clear that they can go further. We have made £300 million available in additional borrowing through the Housing Revenue Account – 17 councils have been given a share of £60 million of this through the first round of bidding and the second round is now open. On top of this, nearly all councils have signed up to use Right to Buy receipts to build more affordable homes to rent and there is more that can be done by some councils with this. We have also asked Natalie Elphicke and Keith House [who are leading the government review into this] to explore what more councils can do to support an increase in housing supply across all tenures in future.
The RIBA has presented guidance to build on the green belt. Are the proposals viable?
We do not agree with the RIBA – we need to make the best possible use of brownfield land in a way that keeps strong safeguards in place to protect our valued countryside. We have no plans to change these protections. Under the old regime of top-down targets, neighbours were pitted against developers, and house building levels fell to their lowest for any peacetime year since the 1920s. That is why we have made the reforms to put communities back in control over how their areas are developed. It is reaping results – last year planning permission was granted for 216,000 new homes.
Will the Conservatives consider making minimum design and space standards an obligation?
We have made clear our plans to develop a national space standard for councils to use where there is a need and where this would not stop development.
Boris Johnson has announced special housing zones for London, are they the answer to the Capital’s housing shortage and could the scheme work for the rest of the UK?
The Chancellor’s announced that Government are providing £200million funding for Housing Zones in London to match the £200million from the Mayor. Government are also investing an additional £200m to create around 10 Housing Zones outside of London.
We’ll be publishing a prospectus setting out how local authorities and developers can come forward with proposals for Housing Zones outside of London very shortly.
There is no one solution to building more homes, which is why since 2010 we’ve been pulling out all the stops to get Britain building, whether that’s investing billions in our affordable homes programme, reforming our planning system, or introducing schemes like Help to Buy, which are not only helping aspiring homeowners onto the property ladder with a fraction of the deposit they’d normally require, but also boosting housebuilding, with leading developers building more as a direct result of the scheme.
Housebuilding levels were up a third last year and are now at their highest since 2007.
Is there a vacuum of quality design overview expertise in both government and local authority level since the decision to pare back CABE in 2011?
Not at all – we continue to attach a high level of importance to improving the design of homes, and wider neighbourhoods.
But rather than me in Whitehall telling people how to design their communities, it should be local people themselves who decide. That’s why the Housing Strategy and the National Planning Policy Framework both place a strong emphasis on achieving well designed new development.
On top of this, last year, the Home Builders Federation and Design Council relaunched their design checklist, Building for Life 12, which is a constructive tool for promoting design quality in new housing – especially by addressing typical community concerns about new developments.
New housing minister: ‘We must maintain momentum on housebuilding’