Meeting housing policy scrutiny demand

The point of Parliamentary select committee inquiries is to critically examine Government policy, cross-examine both its proponents and those that disagree with it and reach a measured conclusion which helps the Government out of whatever hole it’s dug for itself.

But it isn’t always that way. So I suppose we should have known better than to submit evidence to the Lords Built Environment Committee inquiry into “Meeting UK’s Housing Demand”.

After all, the word “demand” was there in the title and ran throughout its call for evidence.

We, and many others, pointed out this was the wrong way to approach this important subject. What their lordships should have been looking at was housing need.

Perhaps we should have demanded it, certainly it was what is needed.

That call was curtly dismissed with a short: “There is no strict definition of housing need”. But neither is there any agreed definition of housing demand. That didn’t, however, stop their lordships from happily falling into line with developers’ and Whitehall’s housing demands.

Well, let’s get one or two positives out of the way. The Committee’s report does admit there’s a resource issue in local government planning departments and there’s a shortage of social housing. It even hints that “Right to Buy” has been pretty much a right for wealthy titans of development to buy themselves bigger yachts.

And their lordships did pick up a point that we and others made about looking beyond the raw numbers in household projections to the sort of extra households expected to form. Most of these are elderly person households, so any house building policy based on expanding numbers needs to concentrate on them.

This they undermined, however, with a big round of applause for Government policy, especially its plans to rip up England’s already threadbare planning system and give house builders pretty much most of what they want.

There was a routine call for “community engagement” with planning before calls for Government reforms which would severely curb their already fragile right to have any notice taken.

Then it’s into the Flaky Think-Tank Songbook. There are calls for even faster local plans, time limits on planning, even cruder guidance and demands that planning gains be tied even more tightly to the infrastructure needed for effective subsidies to house builders.

There’s a routine attack on brownfield-first and the usual call for building houses on countryside near railway stations, despite ample evidence that inhabitants of such developments still make most of their journeys by car.

Smart growth has evidently yet to pervade the red leather benches of the House of Lords.

“Committees,” says Parliament’s website, “consider policy issues, scrutinise government work, expenditure, and examine proposals for primary and secondary legislation”.

And so they should. It’s the job of those on the Government benches in the Lords and Commons to support its proposals for legislation and policy.

Committees’ job, however, is to scrutinise and, where necessary, to criticise. Hearing oral evidence from a range of voices, including critics of the Government or the status quo, certainly helps.

Sadly, it doesn’t always work out that way.