May’s mix of good intentions and unfinished business

Originally published on June 27 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

You wait more than 100 years for a prime minister to address your conference and you get one with less than a month left in the job.

It’s tempting to dismiss Wednesday’s speech by Theresa May to the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) conference on the basis that it was made by a lame duck leader whose decisions could all be overturned by her successor on July 24.

Even the sight of a premier hot-footing it straight from prime minister’s questions in London to the conference in Manchester can be seen less as a reflection of housing’s importance than of how much time she has on her hands during the Tory leadership contest.

As she said herself, even the venue was a reminder of one of her worst moments: the disastrous leader’s speech in the same hall at the Conservative conference in 2017 that ended with her losing her voice and the set falling apart around her.

Yet that same conference saw her dedicate her premiership to fixing housing and it was part of a journey since Grenfell that has seen May’s government move away from the policies of David Cameron, George Osborne and Policy Exchange and re-embrace the ‘our first social service’ traditions of Churchill and Macmillan.

Like her speech to the National Housing Federation conference last September this one came complete with an appreciation of a Tory housing history that has not always been about the relentless hostility to social and council housing of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Cameron.

In this one she mentioned the centenary of the Addison Act and the space standards ushered in by the Tudor Walters committee and the earlier version of the ‘property owning democracy’ promoted by Noel Skelton in the 1920s.

Theresa May has been a prime minister of contradictions, promising to tackle ‘burning injustices’ in large part created by policies she accepted as a Cabinet minister and paying tribute to the Windrush generation who suffered under the ‘hostile environment’ that she created as home secretary.

And try telling the tens of thousands of people living in flats wrapped in dangerous cladding or stuck in temporary accommodation that the results of her housing policies ‘speak for themselves’.

But, lame duck or not, this was the speech of a Tory leader who really seems to believe in her change of direction.

Beyond the housebuilding numbers and the soundbites about ‘restoring the dream of home ownership’ I was struck by her claims that ‘our truly radical reforms, our biggest breaks with the past, have come in work to support those who rent’.

Where that 2017 speech in Manchester had hinted at support for social housing while doubling down on Help to Buy, this one was much more self-confident about leading a government that had moved away from concentrating ‘solely on boosting home ownership’.

In the private rented sector she was ‘rebalancing the relationship between tenant and landlord’, referencing the capping of rent deposits and the abolition of letting agent fees and also promising legislation to repeal Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act.

This is important not just in itself – landlords being able to throw people out ‘on a whim’ people who have done nothing wrong is ‘simply not fair’, she said – but also because it reverses a key part of the most radical Tory legislation of the Thatcher years.

In a similar vein, she hailed u-turns on key parts of David Cameron’s agenda for social housing – Pay to Stay, fixed-term tenancies, the forced sale of higher-value council homes, the HRA cap and cuts to housing benefit for supported housing – almost as though they were the policies of a wicked opposition government rather than her own.

‘In recent decades and under successive governments, social housing became another victim of the single-minded drive for home ownership,’ she said, arguing that the green paper had to do more than simply highlight the problem but be ‘the practical first step in fixing it’.

An action plan and timetable for implementing the green paper reforms is promised in September including stronger consumer regulation and ‘a commitment to further boost the supply of high-quality social housing’.

On new homes, too, there was a switch away from laissez faire Conservativism with a call for national space standards to be mandatory rather than required as a condition of planning permission and then evaded:

‘Now I am no fan of regulation for the sake of regulation. But I cannot defend a system in which some owners and tenants are forced to accept tiny homes with inadequate storage. Where developers feel the need to fill show homes with deceptively small furniture. And where the lack of universal standards encourages a race to the bottom.’

The problem, of course, is that ‘it will be up to my successor is Downing Street to deal with this’ but she said that ‘the next government should be bold enough to ensure the Nationally Described Space Standard applies to all new homes’.

Much the same could be said of a whole range of other housing issues starting with what comes after the green paper. Theresa May leaves a legacy of good intentions and unfinished business.

Whether Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt – or the new set of ministers they appoint to key positions on housing – will pay any attention to their predecessor very much remains to be seen.

Who could she have possibly had in mind when she argued that ‘few other areas of public policy better demonstrate the rule that politicians who propose simple answers to complex problem are seldom being entirely honest’?

It certainly seems unlikely that the favourite to succeed will listen to her message that ‘it is the political world’s focus on the grand gesture rather than incremental change that is partly responsible for the crisis we are dealing with today’.


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