The European Commission is loath to admit that its remit includes housing policy, but the scale of housing need in Europe may require it to adopt an integrated approach
The European Commission will tell you that housing is not a competence of the European Union. But during a recent meeting of the European Housing Forum, I made a quick list of some of the policy areas where the commission is active: energy efficiency in residential buildings, VAT on the renovation and repair of private dwellings, public procurement rules applicable to registered social landlords, homelessness, social inclusion and cohesion, competition and state aid rules for social housing providers and rural development.
Confused? Me too – especially as I’ve been on a commission group looking at mortgage credit for 18 months. So I asked an official about mortgages: “Is home ownership not about housing?” Answer: “Actually it’s a financial service and we need a single market for those.” Right.
It turns out that the green paper on mortgages is one of the commission’s top issues for the year. The objective of the paper is to look at whether there should be a single market for mortgages, which would mean a British person could buy a house in Italy with a Danish mortgage. It therefore asks questions on all sorts of issues including cross-border access to land registry information, property valuation, contract law and the possibility of creating a pan-European secondary mortgage market.
Currently, there is little cross-border activity in mortgages. The UK government, while a little anxious about EU initiatives in this area, has its own drive to boost home ownership – for example, its Five Year Plan for Housing was launched in January and it has a manifesto commitment to create one million more home owners in England alone by 2010.
So I asked an official about mortgages: ‘Is home ownership not about housing?’ Answer: ‘Actually it’s a financial service and we need a single market for those.’ Right
Now contrast this with research from Shelter, which shows that most people in the UK believe living in a safe neighbourhood and being able to afford their housing costs are more important than owning their own home. This calls into question why increasing amounts of public money are being used to help first-time buyers and key workers on to the property ladder rather than using it to build affordable rented homes.
If people want public money to be spent on tackling poor housing conditions, improving neighbourhoods and building more social housing then a more balanced approach is needed. Not just at UK level but from the EU too.
So, is it finally time for the EU to recognise that there are already many areas of European law and practice that have an impact on housing and to come up with an integrated strategy? The European parliament is on the case: at the end
of September its cross-party housing group will debate a draft European Housing Charter. And I’ll be looking to see whether the European commission is sitting there stubbornly with its fingers in its ears.
Jill Craig is head of European policy at the RICS’ Brussels office. Email: Jcraig@rics.org