Question and answers

Originally posted on September 29 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Gavin Barwell told the NHF conference last week that he’s spent his first two months as housing minister asking everyone one simple question: ‘Why don’t we build enough homes in this country?’

It’s a good question that instantly made me think that he should ask one of his predecessors in the housing and planning job. I’m in the middle of reading Nick Raynsford’s new book Substance not Spin. After 43 years of experience as a campaigner and minister it’s subtitled ‘an insider’s view of success and failure in government’.

Any book from (for my money) one of the best housing ministers we’ve had during that time is going to be well worth reading. However, the title of one chapter in particular chimes exactly with what Barwell was talking about: ‘Why can’t we build enough homes?’

Some will find Raynsford’s analysis disappointing. Those who think the solution to everything is to liberalise planning get short shrift. Supporters of a return to council housing will find it dismissed as ‘impractical’ because local authorities don’t have the capacity and ‘undesirable’ because it would mean we had failed to learn from the undesirable consequences of the post-war building boom. Some will also feel he tries a little too hard to defend the early record of the last Labour government before he finally admits that the 2000 Housing Green Paper ‘did not give sufficient emphasis to the need to expand housing output’.

That said, although this is a book by a Labour politician, it could also offer his Tory successor some invaluable insights into the way that the politics (with a small p) of housing work and some pretty clear lessons for the future based on past successes and failures. Here’s my summary.

First, promote mixed communities. The results of post-war mono-tenure council estates and low-density private development were ‘socially disastrous’ tenure segregation as well as poorly designed and energy inefficient homes. He argues for pluralism in provision and strongly in favour of mixed tenure developments delivered via the planning system. (Something that is of course under threat from starter homes.)

Second, don’t make kneejerk interventions in planning policy. Raynsford believes that he was moved from the housing and planning brief in 2001 because he was reluctant to overhaul the system with Regional Spatial Strategies. The point for him is that the disruption changes cause in the short term is only justifiable if they deliver long-term benefits.

He watched from opposition as Eric Pickles abolished the strategies with nothing to put in their place and then sent a strong signal to nimbyism with ‘localist’ reform. He argues that this alarmed the big housebuilders so much that they lobbied their allies in the Treasury, who insisted on the volte face that became the National Planning Policy Framework.

Third, look at the housebuilders and their business model. They’ve rarely built more than 150,000 homes a year in England, they returned dramatic increases in profits at a time when output was declining under the coalition, and the contribution from smaller firms has evaporated.

Fourth, accept that around 80,000 homes a year will be needed from elsewhere. That means a ‘pluralist’ mixture of tenures with homes for social rent, intermediate rent, private rent and low-cost home ownership.

That was the point that really seemed to chime with Gavin Barwell’s speech last week (now on the DCLG website) when he signalled at least a rhetorical shift away from home ownership at all costs.

‘Some people tell me I should concentrate on building more homes for people to buy. Most people want to own their own home so that should be my focus.

‘Others tell me we just have to accept that many young people in certain parts of the country will never be able to afford to own their own home and I should concentrate on building homes for rent.

‘The truth is we need more homes for sale, more homes for private rent and more sub-market homes for rent.’

However, as Raynsford argues, some of the government’s own policies put that pluralism at risk. The short-term political calculation behind starter homes, for example, means the benefits only go to the initial buyers as opposed to being preserved for more homes for future generations.

He also warns of the dangers of too much power being concentrated in the hands of a small number of housebuilders and housing associations. Countering the growth of ‘oligopolies’ would go with the grain of a market in which self and custom build are growing in popularity.

Fifth, learn the lessons of the post-war new towns. Accept ‘the overwhelmingly powerful case for the designation of a new generation of new communities’. That means confronting the future of the Green Belt rather than giving in to local resistance. Raynsford rightly scorns Brandon Lewis’s instant rubbishing of the winning proposal the Wolfson Prize in 2014 (something he feels was not unconnected to its proximity to David Cameron’s constituency) as a ‘fiasco’ that shows just how hard it will be to get desperately needed new settlements built in the South East.

Sixth, rebuild confidence in our ability to plan. Faith in what planning can achieve is Raynsford’s closing argument. Central government has a role in identifying the country’s needs and areas of strategic growth but the detailed plans must be created at regional and local level to command people’s confidence. That will require both further devolution of power from the centre and a new generation of planners able to shape the future of their areas rather than just respond to short-term pressures of development applications.

Seventh, look at the evidence and drop the ideology. Raynsford argues that’s precisely what the Lyons Report did before the last election only for it to be dead in the water once Labour lost. Instead the Conservatives opted for ‘an ideologically driven approach’ of promoting home ownership and weakening social housing. Reducing the capacity of local authorities and housing associations to build homes could put even more pressure on house prices while loss of social housing in higher value areas will increase polarisation.

Barwell’s first couple of speeches suggest that he gets at least some of this agenda. It’s a promising start from the new minister that at the very least shows a willingness to listen and to make up his own mind. However, there was also one section of his speech that made me wonder whether his predecessor is one of the people he’s listened to:

‘If I have learnt two things from all those conversations over the last two months, they are that there is no silver bullet and to distrust anyone who walks through my door claiming to have found one.’

Raynsford uses exactly the same metaphor and he is quoting from the Lyons Report in arguing that there is ‘not a silver bullet’ to transform the housing supply problem. What we need instead, he says, is sustained investment by the full range of organisations across the public and private sectors.

Some of there arguments will have Barwell sprinting quickly in the opposite direction, especially the one about the Green Belt he campaigned to protect as a Croydon MP, but they are the ones that any housing minister has to confront.

The housing crisis will only be solved by politicians who are prepared to look beyond their short term in office and see the bigger picture. Will the new boy end up as the latest minister to go through the revolving door or does he want to be part of the answer to his own question?

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