James Parker looks at what the housebuilding industry needs from our political masters
It would be churlish to complain about any new announcement of funding for housebuilding, and in particular social housing in the current climate. However even if it hadn’t been for the incidents during Theresa May’s party conference speech a few weeks back stealing the limelight, the announcement of £2bn for a “new generation of council houses,” might have received a lukewarm welcome.
She may be genuine in her desire to elevate the lot of the Just About Managing and provide a way for people to even dream of having a home that they can afford to rent, never mind owning one.
Give councils the power to build the homes we need, regardless of political colour,
However her pledge of 5,000 homes per year which the £2bn entails is as much of a drop in the ocean as Jeremy Corbyn’s similarly well-intentioned promise of 500,000 council homes is a pipe dream. He might be able to increase rent controls, but how will he suddenly get more houses built without multi-billions of investment?
What is clear is that housing is the new political battleground, and whether it turns out to be a no man’s land where both sides get cut down remains to be seen. The only positive that has come out of the Grenfell tragedy is that tackling problems in social housing is now consistently part of national debate, and it should never be allowed to disappear back into the margins whether or not some might wish it to.
One of the most intractable problems seems to be how to actually catalyse a higher level of delivery from housebuilders, when the rules of the market dictate they won’t build more and force prices down unless they are made to.
Theresa May met housebuilders in October to ‘encourage’ them to build more, but this is frankly feeble without any regulatory or other teeth behind it, given the scale of the challenge.
Even Conservative Peers, such as Lord Porter, say the current policy moves are woefully inadequate, when what is really required is an intervention to lift the cap on councils being able to borrow money to build. And it is rumoured that the situation is so grave that the DCLG is now contemplating such an announcement.
Porter said they also must be allowed to keep all Right to Buy receipts to replace the homes they sell, and have “powers to make sure developers build homes in a timely fashion”. In addition, planning departments need to be properly funded so that they can cover the cost of processing applications. All this requires some serious political will, most of which is currently being sucked up by Brexit, for better or worse.
Councils are being required to cut rents by 1 per cent per year, and they need all the help they can get. Are the Conservatives still interested in ‘localism’ as they have often trumpeted in recent years? If so, give the power to councils to build the homes we need, regardless of political colour, before the crisis becomes a disaster.
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