Heightened interest – and tension – over the Housing White Paper

jackie-sadek-570pxMy last column provoked much response on the dreaded Twitter. There seems to be more, way more, interest than would be usual around the government issuing a Housing White Paper. Certainly much more than the last one. Political pundits have begun to wake up to the fact that the result of the next general election may depend upon this being landed well. And now rumours are swirling around to the effect that the Housing White Paper won’t be published until March, due to push-back from backbenchers, recalcitrant council leaders and the volume house builders. Let us just hope those rumours are wrong. What not to like about proposals to speed up the planning process and “persuading” councils to accept thousands more homes in a bid to ease the housing crisis? What not to like indeed.

And there is now a new tension emerging. The prime minister is said to be pushing Sajid Javid and Gavin Barwell over at CLG to ensure that new housing is not restricted to the South East, but also spread to other parts of the country where the government’s forthcoming industrial strategy is designed to boost jobs and economic growth. She is going to trail her industrial strategy today in her keynote address at the Charity Commission, and my former boss Greg Clark will be charged with making it flesh. But the anxiety being voiced is that, yet again, the government will be giving too much housing stimulus to areas of low housing demand. How to square that circle? Yet another conundrum in the housing debate.

Almost all areas of the North will see considerable household growth. However it is unlikely to be as rapid as in the South, due to the start point of a much lower population. The question is whether, in making 15-plus year housing forecasts do you assume the success of a policy that has not yet been implemented? Famously, John Prescott made this mistake, thinking it foolish to plan for 20-year housing targets when his policies would see a major shift to growth in the North. Needless to say his policy of rebalancing did not work, and despite a far stronger policy framework, the regional skew increased. The result was actually a worsening of the housing shortage. [As an aside, as a tie-in with the 2002 Urban Summit, and against his instincts, Mr Prescott published plans for the (ill fated) Thames Gateway; I was so bold as to go into print congratulating him for stimulating the market in an area where people actually wanted to live, my inference being: what took you so long?]. Mr Javid and Mr Barwell will do well to resist such a policy repeat.

And even in areas of lower housing demand than London or the South East, declaring targets is one thing, delivery is another. It was the first 2017 meeting of the Northern Gateway partnership board last Thursday , and as its new(ish) independent chair I hauled my sorry carcass (my back still seriously playing up) to Winsford, in Cheshire West to continue to corral my lovely partners into a robust programme of housing delivery. And if you ever needed a case study of “putting 20,000 volts through a small hamster” (see last blog) then this has to be it. It is all very well us saying that we are going to deliver 100,000 new homes in our 40 square mile conurbation (and not only will we keep announcing it, but we are also hell bent on delivering it), but there is a due process to be observed here, and the only way we can deliver it is by co-ordinating seven – yes SEVEN – Local Plans. Spare a thought for my seven wondrous local authority leaders here, all democratically elected of course, and all needing to bring their members with them (some in quite fraught coalitions) not to mention their residents. Well, as you might imagine, it is quite a task. Even with their palpable goodwill and serious hard work, it is a Herculean task.

But help is at hand. We are much blessed with good friends in the partnership and a senior civil servant from the HS2 team (I will spare her blushes) who has rapier-like project management skills, having sorted out some major headache infrastructure projects for HMG, is stepping up to mentor me and the team in wrestling all this to the ground. This will be programme management sans pariel. It will be painstaking work, but wholly necessary. And the Northern Gateway (watch out for some excellent announcements about us at MIPIM this year, by the way) is a Technicolor case study of the sheer enormity of the task in hand.

Intent is not enough. Policies are not enough. Local partners will need support on the ground.