A new message from a Conservative prime minister

Originally published on September 19 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Anyone familiar with prime ministerial speeches about housing will approach today’s announcement of £2 bn of ‘new’ funding for affordable homes with a healthy dose of scepticism.

They may remember Theresa May pledging an ‘extra’ (but seemingly different) £2 bn in her leader’s speech at last year’s Conservative conference – a month later it emerged that that this had been redistributed from other unspent bits of the housing budget.

This week’s £2 bn seems even flakier: it will not apply until 2022 so we won’t know for certain whether it’s ‘new’ or ‘extra’ until we see what’s in the rest of the spending review; there may well be a different party in government by then, and almost certainly a different prime minister; and Brexit may mean all bets are off, especially if no deal brings to power Tories keen to use it as an excuse to deregulate their way to the promised land.

Even if it does turn out to be new money it will not build a single new home now, there is no guarantee that it will be for genuinely affordable rent then, and will it will still not bring the affordable homes budget back to the level it was when the Conservatives took power in 2010.

Despite all that, though, it’s hard not to be struck by the rest of the message delivered by Theresa May to the National Housing Federation (NHF) summit today: housing associations have ‘a central role to play’; the ‘most ambitious’ will be given ‘long-term certainty’; and the prime minister wants to see them ‘taking on and leading major developments themselves’ rather than buying properties from private developers.

That last bit seems significant of a change in attitude towards development at the heart of government as she went on to tell the summit:

‘Your unique status as public interested, non-profit private institutions allows you to attract patient investment and deploy it to secure long-term returns on quality rather than short-term speculative gains.

‘Your expertise as property managers means you can nurture attractive, thriving places for decades to come.

‘You are capable of riding out the ups and downs of the business cycle, as we saw in the years after the economic crash when housing associations carried on building even as private developers hunkered down.

‘And you do all this with the discipline, rigour and management qualities of the serious multi-million pound businesses that many of you are.’

All that will be music to the ears of big associations like L&Q and Peabody (who both get namechecked) and her hosts will also have lapped up her statement she was the first prime minister to speak at ‘the biggest event on the housing association calendar’.

However, she also restated her commitment to social housing: ‘Whether it is owned by local authorities, TMOs or housing associations, I want to see social housing that is so good people are proud to call it their home.’

Yes, it’s easy to be cynical, yes, she has to make the right noises after Grenfell and, yes ,the government is still pouring far more in to Help to Buy than it is into social and affordable housing.

But think back to what we were hearing up to 2016 from Tory leaders and the contrast is huge.

When May says in her speech that ‘on the outside, many people in society – including too many politicians – continue to look down on social housing’ who exactly could she have in mind?

Could it be David Cameron and George Osborne, who according to Nick Clegg privately dismissed social housing as a breeding ground for Labour voters?

As recently as 2015 housing associations were being lumped in with other opponents of their plans to boost home ownership at all costs that they were determined to ‘take on’.

And it’s not just the tone that’s changed: May reminded associations that it was her government that returned long-term certainty on rents and agreed not to extend the Local Housing Allowance cap to social housing.

She could have added the u-turns on many of her predecessor’s other policies including compulsory fixed-term tenancies for council housing, the high-value levy on forced council house sales (for now), starter homes, Pay to Stay and the withdrawal of housing benefit for under-21s.

And without the levy there is no way to fund the flagship 2015 manifesto pledge to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants – or meet the government’s end of the deal agreed with the NHF at the same conference three years ago.

Whatever you think of the ‘extra’ money, and however crazed and unworkable those policies were, these are not just changes of tone but of substance too.

The final section of her speech (which did not feature in the advance trails this morning) almost goes overboard in her determination to praise housing associations and social housing.

Mrs May (or more likely one of her advisers) has been doing some background reading.

She quotes first from Tony Parker’s The People of Providence, an oral history about the people of the Brandon Estate In Southwark published in 1983.

Where one resident says he does not want to be thought of as an ‘estate person’ that becomes an endorsement of mixed tenure development where ’you should not be able to tell simply by looking which homes are affordable and which were sold at the market rate’ and where you should be ‘proud to be thought of as an “estate person”.’

She praises ‘the social justice mission of the pioneers who created the sector in Victorian times – and their descendants who stepped up half a century ago in the wake of Cathy Come Home’.

And she says that ‘the rise of social housing in this country provided what has been called the “biggest collective leap in living standards in British history”.’ This, I think, is a quote from Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses by Chris Matthews.

May says that ‘It brought about the end of the slums and tenements, a recognition that all of us, whoever we are and whatever our circumstances, deserve a decent place to call our own’.

That ‘biggest collective leap’ was of course council housing, which came along when government’s recognised that more was required than the philanthropy of Victorian housing associations.

So it will irritate many people that May says that ‘today, housing associations are the keepers of that legacy’ and they will await a similarly enthusiastic speech to the Local Government Association, where even Conservative politicians despair about the government’s refusal to give council housing more freedom.

But that important point aside, when was the last time a Conservative prime minister made a speech more favourable to social housing that this one?

Advertisements

2 Comments on “A new message from a Conservative prime minister”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s