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Conservative MP hits out at government housing algorithm ‘disaster’

Words: Huw Morris
Housebuilding / iStock-889654612

The government’s ‘next algorithm disaster’ will be housing growth in Conservative constituencies, according to a Tory MP.

Harborough MP Neil O’Brien said the government’s planning white paper proposes “not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time”.

He claimed the new formula “takes the numbers down in Labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be Conservative-controlled”.

His comments reference the government’s recent U-turn following uproar over the schools examinations grading in which about 39 per cent of A-level results were downgraded by exam regulator Ofqual’s algorithm.

Writing on Conservative Home website, O’Brien said overall the algorithm proposes a South-centric model of growth, with some targeted in the Midlands. Comparing the algorithm with recent delivery, he said the South East has seen just over 39,000 homes a year, but will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000 – a 57 per cent increase.

The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase. For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years, he said.

“But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail,” O’Brien added. “The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas.”

He added that if the algorithm were unamended, most Conservative MPs outside London would see large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced.

“Is this what we want?” he asked, citing the example of Birmingham, where the housing number will fall by 15 per cent while the rest of the West Midlands would increase by 52 per cent.

Other examples include Leicester, where the housing number would go down 35 per cent but the rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent, while Nottingham would fall by 22 per cent and the rest of Nottinghamshire rises by 48 per cent.

O’Brien suggested that it is not clear if the algorithm is “even doing what ministers wanted it to”, citing the government’s argument that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.

“But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite,” he said.

“Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.”

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