The Conservative Party conference was high on rhetoric but low on new ideas to drive recovery

Sarah Richardson, editor of Building

The Conservative Party conference this week, with Boris Johnson’s description of a national Olympic-induced “Ready Brek glow” and David Cameron’s call for an “aspiration nation”, was predictably high on rhetoric, low on new ideas to drive recovery.

But for the industry, one of the more inspiring phrases - and one that at least had the advantage of being anchored to an idea - was uttered away from the main conference stage, in the shape of the CBI’s John Cridland’s call for a “housing version of the Olympics”; a spirit in which industry and government would come together to get the sector moving.

The sense of using housing to boost the economy is agreed across the political spectrum: projects can start quickly, the sector, at least in theory, has the capability, and there is an undeniable and urgent need for new homes.

Labour made the sector a centrepiece of its own strategy for recovery in Manchester last week, with shadow chancellor Ed Balls calling for a £3bn housebuilding programme. The coalition has repeatedly stated its ambition to build more homes, and issued a raft of policy announcements in the weeks before the conference in an attempt to achieve this. And the fringes of all three conferences were dominated by discussions of the sector.

We have had floods of initiatives from the government. But in the run-up to the Autumn Statement it is hard to escape the feeling that much more needs to be done

And yet, despite this consensus on the goal, the homes are still not being built. We reveal today, for example, that the NewBuy mortgage indemnity initiative, launched to great fanfare in March, is expected to lead to at best a quarter of the 100,000 house purchases it was designed to enable (page 10). And the latest statistics released by the communities department show housing starts in the second quarter were 10% down on the first - and 54% down on their final quarter 2005 peak.

We have had floods of initiatives from the government, and the last thing the sector needs is any more wholesale change to the fundamentals of the market or the planning system. But in the run-up to the Autumn Statement - where we should, mercifully, see some action as well as words - it is hard to escape the feeling that much more needs to be done.

The call from a RIBA-sponsored commission for local government pension funds to put 15% of their assets into a fund to raise £10bn to invest in private rented housing (page 12) is one such idea that deserves serious consideration, and there are many similar ideas out there. There have also been calls for a tax break on investments in private-rented housing.

What is needed is for the industry, through mechanisms such as the Homes for Britain initiative - a coalition of organisations including the Home Builders Federation and the CBI at the launch of which Cridland was speaking - to marshall these opportunities so that those that stand the greatest chance of success are the ones heard by Whitehall.
Getting the market off its knees may not create the same glow as a seventies breakfast cereal ad, but for both the industry and the wider economy, it would stave off the hunger pangs for far longer.

Sarah Richardson, editor