The main political parties should stop with the soundbites and base housing plans on solid data, not random figures

richard steer BW

During the party conference season we endured the usual flurry of announcements from all the parties on what they intend to do about the housing crisis. In a news cycle where Brexit is the single topic of interest, the latest plans for social housing provision were never going to grab much attention.

That’s a shame, because I am increasingly of the belief that the parties are mistakenly weaponising housing to suit a narrow party-political agenda rather than prescribing what the country actually needs. 

For a Labour Party trying to present itself as a credible future government, it seemed to have plucked random figures out of the air to support its housing plans.

For a Labour Party trying to present itself as a credible future government, it seemed to have plucked random figures out of the air

The measures outlined at the Labour conference included committing to building 155,000 social rented homes a year, at least 100,000 of which should be council properties, adding up to a minimum of just over 3 million additional such properties over 20 years. This would apparently be paid for by increasing housing grants to £10bn a year. 

However, this ignores the basic challenge of who is going to build these homes or where or how, in a possible post-Brexit landscape.

The Conservatives were even more delusional, showing off their new housing minister, former TV presenter Esther McVey. In previous roles she has been accused of being less than on top of her brief.

I was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt, but in a bizarre contribution she induced much mirth by inventing a new profession, which she termed “3D architects”,  and by arguing in the same conference speech that computer technology would be the answer to the housing shortage as though the laptop was a new invention.  

McVey said the government would meet its target of building 300,000 homes a year – a highly optimistic figure – by industrialising housing, creating 195,000 jobs and turning it into a £40bn sector on a par with the automotive industry. 

The Liberal Democrats were more nuanced. In fact, so nuanced that housing hardly featured at all at their conference.

It is all very well to dismiss the Lib Dems as a vocal irrelevancy, but in a snap election they could end up holding the balance of power

They came up with some policies a year ago that included  a proposal for a new government investment bank, a building target of 300,000 homes and an extra tax on empty properties. None of which grabbed much attention then. A year on, these plans still didn’t ignite much excitement.

The Lib Dems did, however, pass several motions agreeing to limit permitted development, giving more thought to town centre planning and making it easier for councils to change permitted use where appropriate.

This included adopting a fast-track procedure to allow a temporary change of use when a space is left empty while retaining protection for community assets and pubs in the planning system. 

It is all very well to dismiss the Lib Dems as a vocal irrelevancy, but in a snap election they could end up holding the balance of power and these conference motions could become law.

So, I am left unimpressed by any of the parties who seem still wedded to the numbers game, trying to outgun each other with a “who can build more homes fastest” doctrine. This may well be a misplaced approach and, looking at recent data on housing demand, out of step with reality. 

Read: Wakey-wakey: we must face up to this construction skills crisis, by Richard Steer

Read: Going to town: Will the £3.6bn Towns Fund make a difference?

In recent years data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has predicted a 17% rise in households in the next 25 years, an increase of 4 million homes or 159,000 a year. However, upon closer analysis those numbers are not as much of a growth curve as we have historically seen.

We have a slowing birth rate, a reduction in migration since the Brexit referendum, plus a likely exodus after Brexit happens, if it happens. Plus, there is a growing number of people living with friends or family who cannot get on the housing ladder. 

So when the ONS predicted a requirement of 159,000 new homes, what went unnoticed was that this was a substantive drop from the previous forecast where it had suggested a need for 210,000 a year. In fact, it looks like overall demand is going backwards. 

Don’t get me wrong: there is still a massive shortage of homes both affordable and private, and governments will keep setting targets and keep missing them.

But it may not be sensible to pull random numbers out of the air to create a soundbite at conference venues when the issue of supply and demand may well be changing. Perhaps more thought is needed – and less populist rhetoric.

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide