There wasn’t too much we hadn’t heard before in Gordon Brown’s preview of the next Queen’s speech, and it was pretty short on detail, but the message came over loud and clear: if his predecessor’s top priorities were education, education, education, his are housing, housing and housing.
We all know the reasons why – the 1.7 million affordable council homes that have been sold off in the past 27 years while only 700,000 have been built to replace them, the chronic undersupply of private housing, and the barriers to entry into the housebuilding industry. On top of that, the government’s
first-time buyer initiative, which offered a subsidy to those buying on the open market, has been a disaster because the mortgage deals it offered were more expensive than the going rate. Now we can toss in interest rate rises, which seem to have put the brakes on inflation at the cost of forcing more mortgage defaults and potentially slowing the rate of housebuilding even further. Bovis Homes in particular sounded a gloomy note on this score. If rates go up any time soon, the industry may start to feel distinctly chilly.
Brown clearly knows that the housing issue has to be tackled across a number of fronts, and his speech gave us reason for confidence. The policy goals of 3 million homes by 2020 and the pinning of lenders to long-term fixed-rate deals simultaneously tackles supply and demand. And a big thumbs-up must go to the idea of the five eco towns. A similar plan worked in the fifties, and it can be made to work again – although it might be tricky to install zero-carbon technology without making homes even more unaffordable. One thing he could do would be to allow developers to lead the eco-town consortiums as well as the councils. And densification must not mean throwing up block of flats with no thought to how they are managed – as four architects warn in a report published with Building this week.
Sensibly, Brown has signalled that he’s prepared to back down over the planning gain supplement, but only if the industry can agree on an alternative. That means a single voice from the British Property Federation and the Home Builders Federation, please. On planning reform, he is pushing to speed up planning applications, but is doing little to change the presumption that development is a bad thing. Let’s face it, the nimbys won’t go away just because their kids can’t afford their own homes.
He stopped short of announcing a return to mass council housebuilding, preferring to rely on Communities England to put more public land into play. Finding a dynamic chief executive and chair to lead this body will be vital. Too much onus for delivering social housing has rested on the private sector in the past decade and those chickens are now home to roost.
So Gordon, we like what you’re saying so far, but as usual the devil’s in the detail. Let’s all take a long hard look at next week’s housing green paper.
Denise Chevin, editor