I admit it, my response to Caroline Flint's housing rescue plan Part II, "Facing the housing challenge - Action today, innovation tomorrow", was borne out of frustration.
I admit that lapsing into frustration is a huge fault in my character, one that frankly frustrates me.
I admit that there are some elements within the policy that may help the industry, those in need of homes and those struggling to hold on to them, of which more later.
That's the confessional out the way, now my plea of mitigation. Once again I found myself reading a Government document that reveals much about the philosophical confusions at the heart of Whitehall housing policy and a desire to have things both ways.
If we wished solely for sound micro managers at the heart of Government perhaps we should be given the choice between KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young and Deloittes on polling day.
We expect, at least I do, political guidance, leadership and a clear vision. We also expect this to be in some way coherent and, heaven forbid that I ask for too much, resilient in the long term. This report reveals none of these things despite the suggestion in the title.
Much of the document was repackaging things that have been trailed so much that any right thinking person would have thought they were enshrined in Government doctrine. Much was from the Green Paper published last year.
But, in fairness, there were bits in the documents published yesterday that I thought were of interest, even if they were were only suggestions or a nuance in the text. Here are a few I have picked out:
- The £200 million allocated to buy unsold flats, could (heavily emphasised) be increased to buy the right homes in right place (pages 4, 12, 21). Is this a crack in the door? I suspect it will remain just that a crack cautiously left by the Government in the hope it sees something good, while not being overly welcoming.
- The commitment remains to reach the now unlikely target of 3 million more homes in England by 2020. But you would expect that (page 3).
- A wider role for mortgage rescue scheme (page 4, 16 22). All good stuff, but probably will just help around the edges.
- The Government is actively examining "a wide range of proposals from partners across the sector". One would hope so. But what does this really mean? We will see. Is this just more political pixy dust (page 7, 8).
- The Government is considering how to encourage new players and business models. Again one would hope so. But what does this really mean? We will see (page 7, 17).
- The document places a greater emphasis than I have seen before on institutional investment in providing private rented (pages 15, 17).
One gets the feeling here that Government may be seeing more clearly the distinction between buy-to-let and build-to-let and also that the difference in terms of maintenance and consistency of housing that can be provided through institutional investment as opposed to private individual investment. My good friend Julian Birch, who blogs for Inside Housing, provides interesting notes on this topic.
However a few potentially good ideas do not make for a policy. And what is stark within the document are the contradictions that stymie effective policy making.
I will for the sake of brevity and my sanity just highlight four points in no great detail.
Is a long period of rapid rises in house prices good or bad?
It is clear the Government cannot decide whether the house price rises we have seen over the past five years are good or bad. It wants it both ways.
On page 6 it says: "Over the past decade the UK economy has become increasingly resilient with an unprecedented period of growth and record levels of employment. Past increases in house prices mean that many home owners now have substantial equity in their homes."
On page 9 we get: "Despite house price reductions in recent months, too many young families, key workers and other first time buyers are not able to afford to buy their own home."
So are rapid price rises as we have seen good or bad? The Government needs to come off the fence if it is to deliver an appropriate policy framework to enable "innovation for tomorrow".
What is housing need? What is housing demand?
At the heart of much of the housing debate in recent years has been the conflation of housing need and housing demand. The Government has done little to suggest it sees the difference.
When talking about housing demand in the housing market we are talking about desire and ability to buy. When we are talking about need, this is not a market issue per se. Here we are talking about someone's need for a decent roof over their head. Those in housing need contribute little or nothing to market demand. Put simply, they are not in the game.
These may be two interrelated issues on the supply side, but solving problems of demand does not necessarily solve the problem of need. A "third way" mixed response will almost inevitably lead to confused agenda and poor targeting, which is where I fear the Government's policy lies.
Should we use the private sector to deliver social objectives?
Very much linked to the above is the Government's desire (probably now waning) to deliver social housing increasingly through the private sector.
Last July Andrew Gilligan put together a dispatches programme for Channel 4 on Britain's Bad Housing. A blunderbuss shot at the whole business, it had one great virtue, four (I think it was four) clips of the ever loquacious, charming and insightful Paul Finch saying the same thing over and again. He told me later he just hoped that if he said one thing enough times it would get in. It did and his point was: Don't expect private business to conduct and deliver social policy.
And he is absolutely right. This is not to suggest that private firms do not have a role in providing social housing, but it does mean that the roles need to be clearly defined and separated. And I believe this is a position that the house builders themselves would prefer.
We now see the problems of this blurring between social and private sector objectives. Having tied social housing policy to the fortunes of the private housing market it is now beset with a host of problems it would not otherwise be facing.
Does everyone really want to be in home ownership?
Here the Government is at sixes and sevens. On page 9 it presents a statistic that: Research shows that around 70 per cent of tenants want to own a home of their own and we believe that Government has a role to play in helping people meet their aspirations. Where this figure comes from, who knows?
I can come up with a statistic too. 100% of those who are now defaulting on their subprime mortgages in the US probably wanted to own their own home.
I could expand further on this issue, but will put one point. If <em>choice</em> is the policy objective, people like me should have access to decent homes for rent from the social sector. I don't in any meaningful sense. If the issue is poverty or the access to investment and finance that homeownership brings, well that may require other levers than helping struggling families onto a ladder that is looking extremely shaky at present.
These are just four problematic issues at the heart of Government housing policy and from talking to people in all corners and at the heart of the housing and house building, there are many more.
So do I have any advice for the Government? Perhaps it should decide whether it wants a housing policy or policies on housing that it thinks will garner the maximum votes from disparate elements of the electorate.