Construction firms expressing doubts about plans to build as many as 445,000 new houses across the West Midlands are guilty of promoting a “counsel of despair”, the region’s new Minister Ian Austin has warned.
In his first speech since taking the job, the Dudley Labour MP threw his weight firmly behind Government plans to “build a new home every half an hour” and warned that it was even more important in times of economic hardship to ensure a plentiful supply of low-cost housing for families.
Mr Austin steered clear of saying how many houses he thought should be built up to 2026, but said last week’s Nathaniel Lichfield report recommending a maximum 445,000 would go a long way towards delivering affordable homes.
The report, ordered by the Government, has been attacked by West Midlands council leaders who described the figures as unattainable in the present economic circumstances and likely to lead to widespread development in the green belt.
Mr Austin told the annual conference of the West Midlands Regional Observatory in Coventry that his first task as Minister had been to meet representatives of the region’s house-building firms and urge them to “bring forward the right plans in the right places at the right time”.
He called on councils to do more to unblock development land and to speed planning processes.
Mr Austin added: “The demand for affordable housing is likely to be greater as a result of the economic difficulties so we need to ensure that we prepare now for the recovery when it takes place.”
Speaking afterwards, he said: “One of the key things I will do is to drive up the number of new homes the region needs.
“It is a counsel of despair to say you cannot build any new homes at the moment. It would be quite wrong to say it is all too difficult.” But his comments were rejected by the Home Builders Federation, and at the Commons Richard McCarthy, director general of housing and planning at the Department of Communities and Local Government, told MPs the Government’s housebuilding goals were under threat as a result of the credit crunch.. Federation spokesman Steve Turner said: “In the current environment it is very difficult with a lack of mortgage availability and a lack of consumer confidence.
“Builders aren’t going to build houses that people cannot buy. We have to see more emphasis on getting liquidity back into the housing market.”
Mr Austin confirmed the establishment of a regional economic council consisting of representative of the CBI, TUC, Engineering Employers Federation, small businesses and the Regional Development Agency which will meet regularly with ministers to address the impact of the economic crisis.
He added: “Our number one priority is to help maintain the security of families in the West Midlands and the companies on which their jobs and prosperity depend.
“This is not the first time we have faced difficult times in the West Midlands. We experienced foot-and-mouth, severe flooding, the collapse of MG Rover and the collapse of the pottery industry in North Staffordshire, but we have come through each time.
“I have every confidence that if we all pull together we can emerge from all this stronger and fitter.”
Mr Austin was speaking at the launch of the Regional Observatory’s 2008 State of the Nation Report, which shows the West Midlands is continuing to lag behind most other regions in terms of prosperity and wealth creation.Regional output remains £10 billion a year below the national average, with the gap “growing year on year”.
The region’s businesses are said to be less innovative than those in other regions, while the West Midlands has the highest proportion of people with no qualifications anywhere in the country.
There are signs, however, that efforts to move out of an unwanted position as the worst performing region in England in terms of skills is succeeding. The West Midlands is now in sixth place out of nine regions.