Comment: Military deserve housing priority

We must provide those who lay their lives on the line to protect us with decent housing.

By Mark Menzies MP

The raucous atmosphere of prime minister's questions can sometimes make it difficult to get your point across.

The speed at which bluster can turn to silence though is truly remarkable when it comes to forces personnel issues. I was incredibly grateful for the respect colleagues showed last week when I asked the prime minister for housing help for armed forces personnel.

We all take matters relating to the armed forces incredibly seriously and any MP who has ever experienced the feeling of meeting an unhappy serviceman, who feels they are getting a raw deal after putting their life on the line for the country, will know exactly what I'm talking about. Believe me, you want to shout from the highest parapet – 'sort this out now!'

It was with that feeling in mind that I asked the prime minister to ensure that priority is given to servicemen and women in the housing market. Affordable housing and the difficulties of getting a mortgage will be up near the top of the list of complaints that most MPs receive and my constituency of Fylde is no different.

Despite some excellent new build developments which are making a real difference, like a terrific new site on Pilling Avenue in Lytham St Annes, many more homes are needed to meet the demand.

That problem is reflected not only every time I look at my email inbox or post bag, it was also clearly on show at a visit a few months back to Weeton Army Barracks. In the heart of rural Fylde, the barracks is home to the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment (2 YORKS) and their families. During my visit I heard from not only servicemen but also their wives and partners who, of course, go through the ringer whilst the Battalion are on active service in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

For young families their concerns were clear. Aside from the issues of relocating to a different area – the majority of 2 YORKS soldiers are from over the Pennines in Yorkshire – one of the main worries was getting that all important foot on the housing ladder. 'How can we afford it?' they asked and: 'Where are the new houses we need?'

This, of course, brings about a myriad of issues which stretch across a range of government departments. How do we encourage councils to approve new homes? How can we help the construction industry start following through their large planning applications and start laying the bricks and mortar? How do we ensure young families feel they have the financial security to take on a big commitment like a mortgage?

There is, of course, no simple answer and a number of macroeconomic factors are in play. Bank lending is a huge issue and the pressure needs to be piled on to our financial institutions to invest in the young people of our country, allowing them the opportunity, at a reasonable rate, to make a go of it in the housing market.

Helping business in the private sector is also key and perhaps the most important task the government faces. Growth will bring about the confidence which is so vital to investment, not only from industry but also from home buyers. This will take time and at the moment, while every positive investment seems to be counteracted by an announcement of job cuts, it would be easy to become disheartened.

I remain convinced, however, that we are on the right track. Creative and well thought out policies are also emerging too. The New Homes Bonus, which gives councils a financial incentive for each new home that is built in their area, is a great start. It replaces, of course, John Prescott's old housing targets, imposed on local authorities in a top-down manner, which told town halls 'build X number of houses by this date – or else!'

In my experience in Fylde this often meant that planners lived in fear of being taken to appeal by developers, often at cost to the taxpayer that town halls could ill afford, if they said 'no', arguing that there were targets to be met.

That, I would suggest, was not a recipe for positive, constructive development. When it comes to giving families the financial power to purchase too, positive moves have been made. I was pleased too to hear, getting back to my question at PMQs, the prime minister championing the Department for Communities and Local Government's £500 million FirstBuy scheme.

This excellent concept will help as many as 10,000 households purchase a new build home in the next two years. Starting next month, developers will begin marketing homes under FirstBuy and qualifying households will be helped with a 20% equity loan to buy a property from a participating house builder. It should really help to get the market moving and, hopefully encourage first time buyers.

Key to service personnel though, is that they will be given priority – something I welcome wholeheartedly – and, I think, shows the government's commitment to their welfare and wellbeing.

The housing minister Grant Shapps, and the prime minister in his reply to me, have both promised the scheme will proactively marketed to service families. Specialist housing agents, they have pledged, will be sent to military bases and training centres to encourage soldiers and recruits to take part.

As the minister said in his speech announcing the scheme: "This government believes in helping people who deserve it – none more so than the brave men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our country."

That's a solid principle, whatever your politics.

Mark Menzies MP was elected as Conservative party MP for Fylde in 2010.

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