Time for the Tories to listen on housing

Originally published on June 9 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Wow. What a night. I was expecting what I thought would be the worst possible result for housing: the Conservatives winning with a big majority but with the best Tory housing minister in 25 years losing his seat.

Instead I turned out to be right about Gavin Barwell being defeated in Croydon Central but wrong about virtually everything else. Theresa May fought the worst Tory campaign in decades while Jeremy Corbyn surprised all of his critics (including me) and the result is a hung parliament.

But just as Labour won but still lost, so the Conservatives lost but still won. For now at least Theresa May will stay as prime minister of a government dependent on support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). (A couple of days after this blog was written Barwell became May’s new chief of staff).

What does this all mean for housing? On the surface, not much at all: housing barely registered an issue during the campaign and someone will eventually become the sixth Tory housing minister in seven years.

In policy terms, the election result will leave the new government struggling to implement any more welfare reforms but that will be no comfort to the poorest households who will still be clobbered by existing cuts and universal credit.

One of the first priorities for the new minister will be to sort out the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap, and especially how it operates in supported housing,

The election result probably increases the chances of a compromise along the lines of the one recommended by the all-party Communities and Local Government committee. It could also give renewed hope to communities in Wales and beyond whose low LHA rates will have a huge impact on general needs too.

What impact might the DUP have? Its Westminster manifesto may have broken the internet but it does not mention housing (not surprising since it is devolved) and the party’s only policy on benefits seems to be to protect them for pensioners.

As an indication, though, most DUP MPs did vote against aspects of the Welfare Reform Act, including the bedroom tax.

However, most housing policy in England is subject to English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). The Tories still have a comfortable majority in England and should have no problem forcing things through if they choose.

Brexit will be such a dominant issue in this parliament that the new government may not choose to do much new but there are still dilemmas to resolve.

And that’s where the identity of the new minister matters. Speaking to Inside Housing during the campaign, Gavin Barwell confirmed that the Tories’ new generation of social housing will be for affordable rent but he also signalled a flexible attitude on things like the LHA cap and forced sales of council houses.

Will a new minister prove to be as willing to finesse what were manifesto commitments in 2015 or as willing to look at more flexibility for council housing?

So much for the immediate agenda but what about the longer term? Here is where I think housing could count for much more.

The reason I thought a big Conservative majority would be such bad news for housing was not just that Labour’s housing policies were clearly so much better.

It was also about the potential impact of the disastrous campaign. One lesson Tories might draw from the dementia tax disaster is that you mess with property wealth at your peril.

That would have been reinforced by the perceived success of the Tories’ ludicrous last-minute scare tactics about Labour’s garden tax (in reality a pledge to look at a land value tax as an alternative to council tax).

For all his good points, much of Gavin Barwell’s campaign in Croydon Central seemed to be based on getting the votes of existing home owners and nimbys. He warned repeatedly that a Labour government would reverse the inheritance tax cut on main homes and the Labour council would build on the green belt.

He failed, as did Tories across London, and is replaced by Sarah Jones, a former head of campaigns at Shelter.

The real winners of this election are surely young people, who turned out in large numbers and now know their vote makes a difference. But they have very different housing issues in mind and they will want action.

A Conservative government victorious elsewhere might have felt free to ignore them. The one that’s just wasted two months of the two years of Brexit negotiations to go backwards may not feel it has that luxury.

If the Tories lost because they failed in the big cities and among young people, then housing has to be a big factor in that and a failure to act now risks them losing again.

So before they junk their manifesto and its authors completely, they could recognise its good points and build on them.

They could blend its radical new (or old) ideas on compulsory purchase, land value capture and municipal housing with the good ideas in the Housing White Paper. They could steal some of the even better ideas in Labour’s Housing Mini-Manifesto.

And they could – and should – recognise that it’s no longer enough to give the next Kris Hopkins or Brandon Lewis their Buggins Turn in the housing hot seat.

None of this may matter much in the chaos of the next few months. The Brexit clock is ticking, Mrs May may not last very long after the ‘period of stability’ she has promised and there may even be another election.

That could eventually open the door for further progress by Labour but achieving a majority across the UK would be difficult enough for the party, let alone one big enough to run England’s housing policy under English votes for English Laws.

As for the Tories, what better way to signal that they are listening to the voters who rejected them than bold and decisive action on housing?

That will require much than the jam tomorrow of promising new homes and Help to Buy. It has to mean action across all tenures and measures to improve conditions for young private renters now.

The best way to achieve that? Give the housing job to a political heavyweight along with a seat in the Cabinet and a Department for Housing.

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