Grant Shapps appears to be on even more of a charm offensive than usual at this year’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. During the opening two days, it has been possible to entirely schedule your day around the housing minister’s fringe meeting speaking platforms: coffee and social housing for breakfast, dubious mini quiches and planning reform for lunch, and a glass of wine with your lack of mortgage finance in the evening.
Indeed, Shapps is so keen to engage that, on being called away in the middle of a discussion this morning, he theatrically branded a business card and thrust it at a confused looking delegate who was halfway through mumbling a question about rural homes.
The minister’s message is clear: the UK is “absolutely facing a housing crisis”, as he put it, and by addressing that, the government can also boost GDP by spurring on construction activity. This twin drive was behind the announcement that the government is supporting the delivery of 200,000 extra homes, through making public land available to developers on a “buy now, pay later” basis, and through its “right to buy” initiative.
These moves, and the prominence given to housing at the conference, have of course been enthusiastically welcomed by the industry. But there have also been some worrying signs that Shapps’ drive to boost housing quickly could come unstuck before it has really got going.
Of most concern is the noise being made around transitional arrangements on planning reform, which would allow councils an as yet unspecified amount of leeway to put in place a local development plan before the controversial “presumption in favour of development” comes into effect.
The arrangements being alluded to could turn out to be a sensible safeguard – if a council is making significant progress on its plan, for example, it would be reasonable to allow time for that to be completed.
But with the huge pressure from influential anti-reform groups on the government to water down or abandon its proposals, you can’t help but be concerned that these murmurings are the start of a move that could allow councils to quietly stall development approvals for not just months, but years. And, however tough the National Trust and others might be acting, that’s not the urgency with which you should deal with a crisis.