Steps in the right direction that don’t go far enoughPosted: March 5, 2018
Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing on March 5.
Theresa May is a politician with a gift for saying the right things but somehow in the wrong way.
I’m thinking here not just of the obvious examples such as the ‘nothing had changed during the election campaign’ and the collapsing lettering of ‘Building a Britain that Works for Everyone’ during her Conservative conference speech last year. She does it even when she is most in control of what she is saying.
She did it in her first speech as prime minister when she dedicated herself to tackling ‘burning injustices’ but only succeeded in drawing attention to the fact they were the legacy of the previous six years of Conservative rule.
She did it on Friday when her big speech on Brexit rightly pointed out that ‘we can’t have everything’ only to prompt a German journalist to ask ‘is it all worth it?’.
And she did it again in her speech on Monday launching the new version of the National Planning Policy Framework.
Here was the prime minister launching the key policy document that will underpin the government’s drive to meet its target of 300,000 new homes a year.
Here was a Conservative leader driving home the key political message about restoring ‘the British dream of home ownership’
But here too was one prepared to admit that young people are ‘right to be angry’ and balance that point about ownership with messages about improving renting, acting on the tragedy of Grenfell Tower and tackling the ‘national shame’ of homelessness.
And then the curse (or her speechwriters) struck again with comments such as ‘there is nothing inherently wrong with renting your own home,’ and ‘you’re not less of a person for doing so.’
Inherently? Less of a person? The gist of what she said was exactly right but the way she said it suggests that she does not really think it herself.
I think there is a wider point here about what’s happened to housing policy since May became prime minister and appointed Sajid Javid as communities (and now housing) secretary.
The shift in tone since David Cameron and George Osborne pursued home ownership and the marketisation of social housing at all costs.
Many of the unworkable policies they put forward have changed too. Starter homes, the extension of the right to buy and the forced sale of council housing all appear to have been put on the back burner or scaled back.
For the first time since 2010, ministers are not just talking about social rented housing, they are prepared to fund it too.
They’ve supported private member’s bills to introduce an approach to homelessness prevention and stop homes unfit for human habitation being rented out (the latter was a measure – this despite the former being based on a system pioneered in Labour Wales and the latter on an amendment to the Housing and Planning Act that was airily rejected in 2016.
Previously unthinkable intervention in the private rental market is now back on the agenda, with a ban on letting agent fees to tenants and encouragement for longer tenancies in the offing.
The same applies to the detail of what was announced today, though most of it was foreshadowed in the housing white paper last year and various consultations since.
The National Planning Policy Framework was always an uneasy compromise between national Tories who see that more new homes are needed and local ones who don’t want them in their own backyards. Today’s new draft does look like it will tilt the balance in favour of new homes.
The apparent move to plug the viability loophole that allows developers to cut their contributions to affordable housing, in some cases to zero, is welcome.
The shift in the ministerial rhetoric is telling too: gone are the days when they assumed that what was good for housebuilders was good for housebuilding.
The big developers are now urged to ‘do their duty’ and build homes quicker and more could follow when the Letwin review of landbanking is published next week.
And yet for all the good things it’s hard to escape the impression that all of this adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
Partly this is because the legacy of policies adopted since 2010 is now all too clear. Homelessness is rising, rough sleeping is rocketing and the gap between local housing allowance and rents continues to widen.
After being told in 2010 that ‘top down’ and ‘Stalinist’ targets were to blame for the slump in housebuilding, the government is now reintroducing new top-down targets.
Though May calls out the housebuilders now, what does she think was the source of those profits, dividends and bonuses apart from policies introduced by her own party: Help to Buy, cuts in red tape and the viability measures that were only meant to be a temporary response to the credit crunch.
What eventually happens on viability will depend on how detailed guidance works out in practice following the consultation: on the one hand there are mentions of ‘non-negotiable’ contributions for affordable housing and infrastructure set at a national level; on the other, there are suggestions that the government will go ahead a requirement that 10% of all homes on individual sites should be for affordable home ownership and allowing build to rent developers to meet their affordable obligations via ‘affordable private rent’.
The planning guidance for viability also seems to that ‘viable’ should be defined as a 20% return on Gross Development Value to developers.
I could be misunderstanding that but that would seem to confirm huge industry-standard profit margins as the threshold for viability.
Ministers may blame ‘nimby councils’ for not doing enough but many of them (including May herself) have been perfectly prepared to court the nimby vote by objecting to development in their own constitutencies.
They have also come out decisively against doing anything about the green belt that just happens to account for the majority of land in affluent constituencies in the South East.
And, as those local authorities have been quick to point out, there is next to no chance of achieving that 300,000 a year target unless the government is prepared much further and allow them full freedom to build again.
In summary, today’s speech and the revised NPPF are steps in the right direction. They go some way to making up for the mistakes made since 2010 and Cameron and Osborne’s politically motivated obsession with home ownership and show that some thinking has moved on since the white paper.
But the government has still not caught up with the scale of a housing crisis that requires decisive action on homes of all tenures and funding that goes beyond the tinkering in the last Budget. And even then the crisis will not be solved by supply alone.