It’s one step forward, two steps back in the housing crisis

I’m sorry for the pause in blogging. Hopefully you didn’t even notice but if you did, I sincerely apologise. I have been at a loss to know what to say. I am a bit numb, actually.

I know I am not alone in feeling somewhat paralysed. I know I am not alone in still not having recovered from the meltdown of the election or the ghastly series of terrorist attacks, let alone the ensuing utterly appalling tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Blimey! The country hasn’t recovered from the bitter divisions forged by Brexit just over a year ago, let alone finding ourselves at a total loss in the light of these new traumas.

Over a glass of wine the other night, a well-known player in our industry burst out: “I don’t know how much more of this I can take!” I forbore to point out to her that life would be very much worse had she been implicated by Grenfell, or any of the other tragic events, as so many thousands are.  It didn’t seem very sisterly somehow. And I did know what she meant.

There is now very little bandwidth for anything much other than crisis management, in this, our poor beleaguered crisis-nation. It is wholly understandable but it is a crying shame, particularly in regard to the housing crisis. I genuinely believed that in April of this year we were within grasping distance of cracking the fraught issue of increasing housing supply, with the combination of Gavin Barwell, our hugely able housing minister, supported by Helen MacNamara, one of the most effective civil servants in Whitehall, running the housing team within CLG, and all underpinned by a competent housing white paper and with a palpable sense of steely political will.

Well, all of that is now turned upside down; both by the outcome of the election and by the Grenfell Tower tragedy and its implications. As we all know, Gavin Barwell sadly lost his parliamentary seat and has gone to be chief of staff at No 10. Well that is good news for him, and good news for the country altogether, of course. And the housing lobby knows it is always good to have friends in high places. But it will inevitably mean a dislocation in follow-through on housing policy. Our new minister, Alok Sharma, is very highly regarded but there is a lot to get your head around and, as of now, he can’t see much past Grenfell Tower (rightly, of course). Similarly, Helen MacNamara has now been diverted to head up the response team on Grenfell, with her existing responsibilities being absorbed by the rest of the senior team, and a huge amount of CLG resource is also focused onto Grenfell response (and rightly again). But it does mean the day-to-day business of sorting the housing crisis has been pushed somewhat to the back burner.

And we were so close.  Whether the target was to be either a million new homes by 2020 or a million and a half new homes by 2022, or whatever immense and mind-boggling number was mooted, we were beginning to close in on NIMBY local authorities.

You may recall in 2014, then housing and planning minister, the ever ebullient Brandon Lewis, made a promise to step in and write the local plans of recalcitrant planning authorities if they failed to get their acts together by the end of 2017. Since then, empowered civil servants have been travelling around the country offering equal amounts of encouragement and nanny whip (I know because I used to be one of this number) to get housing quanta substantially increased and accelerated. And it was working. But now, in the face of this disarray at the centre, the officials must feel as if they are fighting with one arm tied behind their backs.

Our industry always cries out for political certainty. And if ever it was needed it is now.

The big question is: will local authorities around the UK, on whom we are totally and utterly dependent for a solution to the housing crisis, especially in and around our big cities, now revert to doing things at their own speed? Time will tell.  I am attending the Local Government Association in Birmingham for most of this week so I will take the temperature of those in the frontline local authorities and let you know. But my guess is that they will all be a bit numb.


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