The party conference season has come to an end with Labour promising the moon and the Conservatives unable to escape the straitjacket of Brexit. No party seems capable of grappling with the truth of what our country needs
Apparently we are all living in the era of “fake news”, or perhaps in actual fact it is real news that politicians just like to claim is fake when it shows their promises to be lies.
This was no more evident than during the three political party conferences that we have just witnessed. I must admit to having only travelled to the Liberal Democrats’ jamboree in Bournemouth, although for those of us working in the built environment the real fireworks seemed to be at the other two.
Labour in particular seems to have a vision for construction that has a certain Life on Mars quality. By which I mean it was not only reminiscent of a scene from the television programme that travelled back in time but it was also beamed in from another planet.
Nationalising construction, banning PFI, rent controls. Come on, Mr Corbyn. I thought the idea was to get things built, not totally alienate the few private investors left who don’t think the UK is a complete basket case post Brexit? What I found disappointing about each party’s general approach to the three big topics of the day – housing, infrastructure and skills shortages – was a general lack of strategic vision. It was all sound bite politics designed for the Twitter feed.
Come on, Mr Corbyn. I thought the idea was to get things built, not totally alienate the few private investors left who don’t think the UK is a complete basket case post Brexit?
I may be biased but it seemed to me that the Liberal Democrats are the only ones consulting widely in our industry and forming a measured view on things like skills training.
However, with Vince Cable’s party currently polling a paltry 6%, it is the other two political parties that most key opinion leaders in our sector will be listening to. They want to try and get some inkling of what a future government might offer in the way of legislative changes – changes that could affect their business investment decisions for the next two to three years.
In this respect, the Conservatives were inward-focused, engaged in some sort of political incest, or suicide pact, totally and exclusively bogged down in Brexit. There has been a flourish or two from Sajid Javid, the secretary of state for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), but we are all still awaiting the primary legislation on housing/planning that was postponed at the time of the last election.
One area that has come into stark focus has been the paucity of social housing. Recent figures from the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) show that the provision of this accommodation model still has a long way to go. Its latest report says that between now and 2021 the government will spend 79% of its housing-related budget, equivalent to £32bn, on programmes such as Help To Buy, while the remaining 21%, or £8bn, will go toward the likes of shared ownership and affordable housing schemes.
As the Conservative Party conference began in Manchester last Sunday, prime minister Theresa May announced a further £10bn injection into the Help to Buy scheme, a surefire way to add demand without improving the supply of housing, making homes even more unaffordable.
Between 2010/11 and 2016/17 the number of affordable homes funded by the government halved to 28,000 units, according to CIH analysis of figures from the DCLG. The number of homes built for what the CIH calls “the cheapest social rents” and funded by government, has slumped from 36,000 to around 1,000 units.
It is no wonder then that when Jeremy Corbyn says he will introduce rent controls and compulsorily purchase land banked space to build for the poor, it strikes a chord with voters. This could be the most important and most popular policy from Labour for the next election. The government’s riposte is much more woolly, probably because they know that while still in power they have to be seen to deliver on what they promise.
What is most depressing about the whole political landscape at the moment is the scapegoating of our sector
In a speech before conference, given to the National Housing Federation, Javid said a green paper will be published on the future of social housing and announced it would be a “wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review of the issues facing the sector […] the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”.
What he did not give was any timeline for its publication. The aim apparently is to “kick off a nationwide conversation on social housing, focusing on ‘what works and what doesn’t’.” With a report published a few months ago from the housing charity Shelter arguing that more than a million households living in private rented accommodation are at risk of becoming homeless by 2020 because of rising rents, benefit freezes and a lack of social housing, I suspect the electorate will find the Labour pledge more persuasive than the Conservatives’ ruminations.
What is most depressing about the whole political landscape at the moment is the scapegoating of our sector. The Grenfell tragedy was immediately, even before the inquiries began their work, alleged to be the fault of subcontractors. The housing crisis is caused by profiteering developers who sit on land, and those who bid for PFI contracts are crooked and charge £300 to change a lightbulb. It is the worst kind of fake news – untrue and dangerous.
We have enough trouble attracting young talent into our industry and this vilification of those who create the built environment by power-hungry politicians, desperate to create a controversial headline or two at conference, has the potential to turn off a whole generation from joining us. When that happens, who will build?