We’ve heard it all this week. All, that is, except a commitment from the government to spend considerably more cash to boost the housing sector and fundamentally change the way we build
Blame local authorities. Blame developers. Blame land banking. Blame the planners. Blame Brexit. We’ve heard it all this week. All, that is, except a commitment from the government to spend considerably more cash to boost the housing sector and fundamentally change the way we build. Instead, what we got from the prime minister’s big speech on housing this week was a lot of buck passing and rhetorical flourishes – along with the predictable sideswipes at housing developers. The words of one leading housebuilder captures the mood following the government’s latest promise to fix the chronic undersupply in the sector. “All this noise is just so repetitive and boring. But if this is the game we have to play with government to preserve the status quo, then so be it.”
You’d think the prime minister had enough on her plate dealing with Michel Barnier but no, acutely aware of her flagging popularity and the need to appeal to younger voters, she has turned her attention, quite rightly, to the housing crisis. So here we are.
You got the sense May was astonished there could be a problem at all since her government was doing so much to solve it
The problems with the housing sector have been dissected many times down the years. In recent history, there was the seminal report from Kate Barker, a former Bank of England economist, who conducted a wide-ranging review into housing supply 14 years ago. She laid out the issues, ranging from a growing population, the systemic undersupply of homes, the need for planning reform and the impact of interest rate patterns. Her findings and recommendations have been trotted out and repeated ever since by successive ministers who have failed even so to bring about the structural change that would make a difference.
Part of the problem is that they have to find a way of modulating their messages around what is an emotive and potentially explosive political issue which directly impacts most of their voters’ lives. They have to do something to assuage the anger of those cast out from any prospect of affordable housing, while reassuring their supporters that they’re not about to brick over the countryside. Hence the beads of sweat as they try to balance contradictory soundbites. And hence the inertia and back-peddling as civil servants and PR merchants rein the ministers back in and quietly re-write the small print of any policy likely to cause difficulties – like a scene from the old TV sitcom, Yes Minister.
Theresa May’s speech on housing was classic political manoeuvring. First, she attempted to address the inequalities suffered by a large minority of the electorate. She needed to convey that she “understood” the reality of the growing housing shortage: “People have a right to be angry.”
Big impressive statistics then got called up as if their very size was going to be enough to convince her listeners that the problem was about to be fixed. Except anyone who knows anything about the subject knows the big targets are simply not big enough and are unlikely ever to be achieved without considerable extra cash being put on the table.
And then, there was that thump she gave local authorities and planners. How could she resist? It’s easy, vote-winning rhetoric, notwithstanding the fact that nine out of 10 planning applications are now approved. But wait a minute, “the gap between permissions granted and homes built is still too large”, so trash developers, land bankers and housebuilders and announce another review to be conducted by a back bencher not known for their expertise in the field. And do this while studiously refusing to make any structural changes that would interfere with these same developers driving their businesses forward. After all, who’s going to build all these new developments that are needed if it’s not them?
Really, listening to the speech, you got the sense May was astonished there could be a problem at all since her government was doing so much to solve it. But for all the measures announced (even if many of them appeared a year ago in the housing white paper), there was a woeful lack of imagination as to how housebuilding could be reworked. Some may hope she is leaving the game-changing stuff to the next Budget. But no, this was her chance and it wasn’t anywhere near enough. The population continues to increase, homelessness grows, a generation of voters become increasingly disenfranchised and angry.
Those operating in this sector know that the only game-changing way to make a difference and increase supply is for the government to commit to a new generation of centrally funded social housing. Start by lifting the cap on local authority borrowing to enable planners and developers a chance to work together and practically solve the housing shortage through good local development plans. Sounds easy when it’s put like that, doesn’t it? But then, as the Conservative peer Lord Porter, who chairs the Local Government Association, tweeted: “If we want more houses, we have to build them, not plan them. The [Housing Department] needs to push back against [the Treasury] or the nonsense will go on and nothing will change.”
The problem is that both housebuilders and politicians are “gaming the system”, to use May’s words, and housing is now so overtly political, that change only happens so that things can stay the same.
Tom Broughton, editor-in-chief, Building