COMMENT Budget Day on 22 November looms. And it’s not exactly a secret that we can expect some muscular announcements on housing – new money, reforms to planning (yet more!) and “incentives” for the construction industry to build homes (any idea what would work here? No, me neither).
When Whitehall isn’t in a frenzy about Brexit, or the so-called “sex scandal” (which is rather old news to most of us – oh! And sincere apologies for my ill-fated tipping of Michael Fallon to be next leader), it is in a frenzy about house building.
The penny has dropped. The young are disaffected and dispossessed, but they are increasingly enfranchised. The government must increase home ownership. Not just for the sake of the economy – which is reason enough – but for the sake of their own political ideology. It is desperate.
The big question, as ever, is: exactly how do you increase supply using the current models? And the answer is (sadly) that you can’t.
But hey! Rumour has it that Sajid Javid has been successful in his pitch for more public spending on housebuilding. It will be Her Majesty’s Treasury which will demand “planning reforms” in return (while spectacularly not identifying what these might be).
Rumour has it also, that the undiluted draft of Gavin Barwell’s housing white paper will now get a proper airing. And a jolly good thing that would be. I’ve only ever managed to read the dumbed-down version that was eventually published early last February, but I don’t mind betting my right arm that the unadulterated version is far more logical and intellectually robust. It may even have some answers…
Yet another rumour (they swirl like autumn leaves in a hurricane) is that there will be an announcement on a series of new towns, or garden cities (or towns or villages). That may be a bold position for the chancellor to take, but it would be thoroughly well advised.
However, two words of caution here. First, I would make it explicit that we won’t be touching green belt land in any of this. While I would be the first to acknowledge that most of the debate around green belt is wholly irrational (verging on completely bonkers), one should always know one’s limitations. Politics is the art of the possible. And you really cannot have the distraction of the combined forces of the Daily Telegraph, the National Trust, the CPRE and Sir Bufton-Tufton spluttering “Hands off our land” all through the winter and spring. All so tedious and wearing.
Second, and more importantly, the policy may be sound (and it is, it is) but be uber-careful how you implement it. I know of more than one scheme which was identified as one of Gordon Brown’s “eco-towns” (remember them?) in the mid-noughties which still remain stalled 10 years later, because the community local to the scheme have never managed to get over their righteous opposition to having an eco-town thrust upon them by HM government.
To this day, these residents have still never managed to engage meaningfully in the actual content of the scheme being proposed, no matter how decent the partner is, nor how positive a contribution the development could make to their lives and to their local economies. We need to learn. And, as I always say: beware the top-down construct. Always look for the “coalition of the willing”.
And if you are seeking new sites for whole new cities (like Milton Keynes) you would be as well to look first at government land (HMG is still the biggest land banker in the UK, by some considerable factor) and secondly, for volunteer sites, bottom up, where local authorities and communities are working together to facilitate growth. I can name a few of the latter, off the top of my head, starting with Wisbech which has been putting it’s hand up to be a dormitory to Cambridge for the past five years at least…
Finally to say, perhaps almost as a throwaway, but nonetheless cogent for that, beware what is presented to the market. And how. We work in an industry of opportunists. You really don’t want any signal to the boys in white shirts that HMG is intent on buying strategic sites, as that will only serve to ramp up the price, and further stymie delivery. We all know it happens.
Deep sigh. It is at times like these that I am rather relieved I am no longer working in a Whitehall department.
Well now… apart from all that, carry on I guess! Or better still, find some new models.
This article was first published on 6 November.