Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Everyone wants to enjoy the comfort and security of a quality home, whether it’s bought or rented. However, as a nation, we have for generations struggled to build the new properties needed.
We Conservatives have always claimed to be the party of aspiration and home ownership, and we are making progress nationally. The number of net additional dwellings in England has reached record highs in the last few years. But more must be done.
Under a Conservative Mayor, the West Midlands is the only region on track to hit its housing target. How have we achieved this, and how is our approach to building homes also boosting the broader economy? And why do I believe mandatory targets should be reinstated?
What are we doing that is different? The figures here speak for themselves. The broader West Midlands area is on course to hit our target of 215,000 new homes by 2031. Last year saw 15,500 built, which represented a slight fall on the previous year, but still puts us ahead of the game.
Key to this has been my ‘Brownfield First’ policy, which encourages developers to use derelict industrial sites for housing, rather than the Green Belt. As the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, we have plenty of these, which have often blighted communities for decades. It’s much easier, and cheaper, for developers to put up homes on Green Belt, so the trick is to make Brownfield development a viable – and preferable – option.
Since signing a landmark housing deal with the Government in 2018, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has funded the remediation of these often-contaminated sites, cleaning them up ready for new communities to take root. You can find examples of all sizes across our region, from the rebirth of the vast site in Longbridge, which was once the home of MG Rover, to new homes being built on the former Harvestime bakery or Caparo steelworks in Walsall.
The West Midlands has always had a strong construction sector too, and our efforts to keep sites open during the pandemic also helped us stay on track. Despite the inflationary and economic pressures facing the building industry, we’ve instilled market confidence and continued to get homes built.
We also take a unique approach to affordable housing. The WMCA became the first region to introduce its own definition of affordable housing, linking it to the real-world incomes of citizens rather than to house prices. The definition is based on people paying no more than 35 per cent of their salary on mortgages or rent. If developers want the WMCA’s help in cleaning up land, they must make a minimum 20 per cent of the homes they build affordable.
There are other innovative schemes too. More than 200 homeowners have been able to snap up a home for just £1 on Wolverhampton’s £34million Marches estate. The development sells homes under a help-to-buy scheme, which allows residents to purchase them after renting for 25 years.
This revolution in housebuilding has had a hugely positive economic impact, bringing jobs and training opportunities. Brownfield sites that were once derelict scars are now new commercial sites offering employment. Instead of building thousands of homes on the edges of our towns and cities, placing them on reclaimed urban sites puts people back into the heart of the community, boosting footfall to local high streets.
This is also helping make our cities and towns denser, as they are in the EU, helping attract footloose, modern industries. The quality homes we are building are also ensuring local talent stays in the region, another key attractor of employers and investment. An improved supply of quality rented homes also helps keep prices down.
And we have only just begun. Since 2018, we have attracted more than £600 million in Government investment to reclaim brownfield sites. We have now unlocked £200 million for further development. We’re doubling down on Brownfield First, with lots of potential sites left to target. It’s predicted that the introduction of Growth zones will boost house building here too, by 4,500 homes.
Last year, the Prime Minister ditched the top-down mandatory construction targets that have for years been part of housing policy, as regions struggled to meet them. The targets are now effectively “advisory”, with councils allowed to build fewer homes if they can show hitting them would significantly change the character of an area.
I do understand Rishi Sunak’s thinking on this – after all, we want to build the right number of homes, in the right places and in the right way. However, here in the West Midlands, we are delivering the houses people want – and I believe that targets have played an important role in that success, by galvanising us to succeed.
Having a national target, which you then have to work out at a local level, forces you to think about how you’re going to achieve it. Targets also encourage good practice and collaboration on a regional level. Our councils in the West Midlands have pro-growth policies and are generally supportive of redevelopment. Without those frameworks from central government, I fear we won’t be able to be as effective as we have been in the past.
However, while I would like to see mandatory targets brought back, I also agree with the Prime Minister’s call for local people to have more say in the housing process. English devolution – driven by consecutive Conservative governments – has been the catalyst for the renewal of the West Midlands, and regional oversight has been key to our success in building new homes.
We have shown that we know how and where to build. Given more control and funds, we can do even more. Our ‘trailblazer’ Deeper Devolution Deal agreed last year commits to giving the WMCA a greater degree of control over the Affordable Housing Programme. The future is in our hands.
We Conservatives don’t have to take any lectures from the Labour Party on how to build new homes because, under a Conservative Mayor, in the West Midlands we’re getting on with the job and delivering when no one else is.
Thanks to our innovative approach, tens of thousands of West Midlands people are being handed the keys to their own properties. Housing targets have played a valuable part in making that happen – by galvanising us to work together and deliver on a regional level.