Building a better future or surrendering to the past?

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

So now we know what the ‘people’s priorities’ are – and housing is not one of them.

The fact that housing did not feature in the speech from Rishi Sunak setting out his agenda for the new year is not a surprise in itself  – his five pledges all covered issues with far greater political saliency.

But it is still surprising that in a speech on ‘building a better future’ he did not mention housing at all and that, apart from a boast about stabilising mortgage rates, the speech steered clear of traditional Tory territory on home ownership.

He did talk about community (‘a better future also means reinforcing people’s pride in the places they call home’) and making places better (‘I love my local community and it’s not right that too many for far too long have not felt that same sense of meaning and belonging’).

But he is talking here about people who already have places they can call home and avoids any mention of those who do not have a home or need a new or more affordable one.

And that is no coincidence because he was speaking in the wake of the government’s surrender late last year to its own backbenchers on planning and housebuilding.

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The levelling up of housing targets

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

There is no chance of the government achieving its target of 300,000 new homes by the mid-2020s so why has the drama ramped up within the Conservative Party?

The answer is, of course, politics but it is coming from two different directions and there is a long history that lies behind it.

The inclusion of the target in the 2019 manifesto was all about having something to say to younger voters excluded from homeownership.

Note that the commitment is actually to a more weasly ‘progress towards’ 300,000, alongside a promise of ‘at least a million homes’ in this parliament, although both are important in focusing minds within government.

The latter target – effectively 200,000 a year – should be comfortably achieved, not least because it already happened in the last parliament.

Figures published last month showed that 232,820 net additional homes were delivered in 2021-22, a 10% increase on COVID-affected 2020-21 and not far off the pre-pandemic peak.

House builder after house builder has reported falling sales recently, so the total should fall this year regardless of anything MPs decide about planning.

Which is where the other direction comes in: the politics of appealing to well-housed, mostly older voters in affluent Conservative constituencies in the South East from MPs who fear a multiple repeat of the Tory defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election at the next general election.

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A tale of two Conservative parties

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

If the Liz Truss government is serious about delivering growth and getting Britain moving then it has to be serious about housebuilding and planning reform.

The superficial signs are that it is: the promised programme of investment zones; promises of further reforms to boost housebuilding and home ownership in the Autumn; prime ministerial support for growth, growth and growth.

The underlying ideology shouts that it is: take a quick look at this briefing paper on housing from the Free Market Forum, an offshoot of the Institute of Economic Affairs whose parliamentary backers include Truss, chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, housing secretary Simon Clarke and housing and planning minister Lee Rowley.

But history still suggests a need for caution: exactly the same thing could have been said in 1983/84, 1988/89, 2010/11 and 2020/21, when Conservative ministers proposing planning liberalisation were thwarted by more cautious colleagues or rebellious backbenchers or both.

Because there are two poles of Conservatism: the libertarian, economic liberal one that is currently in the ascendancy and a social conservative one that sees green belts and planning regulations as a good way to conserve things.

Between those two poles, more pragmatic Tories recognise that they have to take account of both if they are to deliver more homes – and that their political success or failure in future could depend on that delivery.

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The big questions facing Simon Clarke

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Simon Clarke has yet to reveal much of his thinking on the key issues facing his new department but the early signals coming from the new government mean it’s already clear that tough choices lie ahead.

As chief secretary to the Treasury since September 2021 he was responsible for scrutinising and departmental requests for more public spending. Now he replaces Greg Clark at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), where he briefly served as a minister for regional growth and local government in 2020.

As a prominent supporter of Liz Truss, Clarke will have some influence with the prime minister and could be heard acting as her spokesman on energy costs on the Today programme on Thursday.

Like any secretary of state he will fight for the departmental interest and but it seems doubtful whether he will have as much heft in Whitehall as his predecessor but one Michael Gove.

Indeed there are already some straws in the wind. Consider a story leaked to the Telegraph over the weekend about a £1.5bn underspend at the DLUHC.

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Reading the Tory leadership tea leaves

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

On the surface the two Tory leadership candidates have had little new to say about housing – when they’ve even bothered to discuss it.

Liz Truss would cut red tape for housebuilding at the same time as she would scrap the ‘Stalinist housing targets’ introduced by her own party and boost community rights to object to homes that create the red tape in the first place.

Sunak would put a stop to building on the green belt, highlighting the 60 square miles lost to development since 2014 while ignoring the 60,000 square miles that are left and the fact the green belt has doubled in size since 2014.

Those contradictory ideas reveal next to nothing beyond a need to appeal to well-housed Tory members but neither candidate has said anything so far about social housing, affordable housing or private renting.

Yet there are issues and ideas bubbling away beneath the surface of the leadership contest that could still have a profound impact on housing.

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Tory leadership debate misses the target

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

This is a Conservative leadership race in which the number of toilets we should have has often seemed a bigger issue than the number of homes we need.

Even allowing for the fact that the candidates have to appeal to electorates made up of Tory MPs and elderly Conservative members who appreciate anti-wokery, the level of debate in the race to be the next prime minister as well as party leader has been beyond depressing.

The only candidate who made housing explicitly part of his pitch was Sajid Javid as he called for ‘a massive programme of garden villages and new towns’ and incentives for longer-term tenancies – but he was one of the first to be eliminated.

The debate has otherwise been dominated by tax cuts and the general message is that whoever wins will cut public spending to create space for them.

Calls by multiple candidates to reverse the increase in National Insurance make the prospects of meaningful reform of social care look even more remote.

‘Common sense’ calls for people to be given back ‘their own money’ ignore attempts up to now to target cost of living support on the poorest.

And you have to wonder whether benefits will really be uprated in line with inflation next year and whether the Treasury will allow a potentially double digit increase in social rents.

The levelling up agenda looks to be on shaky ground, with Liz Truss, for example, calling for ‘levelling up in a Conservative way’, which appears to mean tax cuts for entrepreneurs rather than a rebalancing of public spending.

The 2050 net zero target is only opposed by one of the remaining five candidates (Kemi Badenoch) but none of them have shown much enthusiasm for a strategy to achieve it.

On the opening weekend of the leadership race, the Sunday Telegraph devoted tens of thousands of words to the candidates and what they plan to do. The only mention of housing came in a piece about where Boris Johnson plans to live next and which of his two sets of tenants should be evicted to make way for him.

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Mind the gaps on building safety

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Who is guilty, who is innocent and who is merely collateral damage? The answers, when it comes to building safety, are not as simple as it first seems.

Guilt in a legal sense remains to be seen but just about everyone involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower seems to bear some responsibility, starting with the governments that set the building regulations and reaching down via organisations involved in product testing and certification and building control to the companies that supplied the cladding and insulation, the contractor, designers, subcontractors and client. 

All of the above plus developers are seen as ‘guilty’ when it comes to the wider building safety crisis while leaseholders are the innocent parties that the government has finally accepted should be protected from the costs.

And yet scratch a little deeper in the debates over the Building Safety Bill and the new approach initiated by Michael Gove and the dividing line between innocent and guilty is not remotely as clear cut as that.

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The tide turns on deregulation and the private sector

The package of building safety changes announced this week by Michael Gove represents an extraordinary shift on any number of different levels.

Whether it’s effectively banning developers from building anything if they fail to cooperate or rewriting the terms of tens of thousands of leasehold contracts, the amendments to the Building Safety Bill will fundamentally change the way that flats (at least those over 11m) are maintained and managed.

The package inevitably raises a whole series of questions that I’ll return to in a future column but for now I want to concentrate on what it says about the extent of the change in the government’s attitude towards the private sector in housing.

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Johnson, Partygate and manifesto commitments

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It’s been just over two years but thanks to Covid-19 it feels like a lifetime ago.

Leaving aside the question of whether he has really delivered on his headline promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’ how much of Boris Johnson’s 2019 election manifesto has survived into the post-Coronavirus age?

The question was originally prompted by the outcome of the judicial review over Everyone In. The scheme launched at the start of the pandemic to get rough sleepers off the streets and into hotels within a few days was a great success.

It also signalled that the manifesto promise to ‘end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament’ should be well within reach.

Except that, for all that rhetoric, Everyone In morphed from a policy into an initiative with an asterisk attached. From around May 2020, it was no longer a promise but branding for an initiative exhorting local authorities to act without giving them any extra resources.

And then I realised the wider context as we continue the seemingly interminable wait for Sue Gray’s report.

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Gove’s grand plan leaves gaps to fill

As one MP put it, we welcome the steps forward in ministerial statements on building safety only to find problems in the steps backward that follow.

Michael Gove’s plans to ‘make developers pay’ represent the most positive steps seen so far but there are still major concerns over what comes next.

For starters, how exactly will he ‘make’ them? The initial plan in talks before Easter seems to be persuasion but the levelling up secretary has limited levers that he can pull and why would companies that have previously resisted calls to ‘do the right thing’ change their minds now?

He cited the way that Rydon Homes, sister company of the main contractor in the Grenfell refurbishment, was barred from Help to Buy but the scheme ends in 2023 and most of the £29 billion in equity loans has already been committed.

This highlights yet again a major flaw in the government’s support for housebuilders that I highlighted even before the creation of Help to Buy: its failure to get a quid pro quo for all that help for profits, bonuses and dividends.

Short of another support scheme, which may ironically be needed if supply plummets, that leaves blacklisting from Homes England programmes and naming and shaming as his principal weapons. Neither is a negligible threat but will they be enough?

That leaves coercion, legal action or the ‘high-level threat’ of a new tax that Gove is authorised to make in the letter leaked to Newsnight from chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke.

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