Mrs May makes a bold commitment

Time is short. And, being pragmatic, I wouldn’t imagine many in the property industry will bother reading reports about anything other than the Conservative manifesto, published last Thursday.

Of course, views were always going to be mixed. But whatever else you say about it, or think about it, the GE17 Conservative Manifesto is undoubtedly very well written and lucid. There is a clarity of expression which stems from organised thinking. It is grown up. Anyone who has read it properly (admittedly these will be few in number) would have to agree that it hangs together. It is a document that reads as a whole. And whether or not you like the measures proposed, it is radical in seeking social reform. It is brave.

And it was a calculated risk. It remains to see if the so-called “weekend wobble” is sustained. The Conservatives will almost certainly win a majority on 8 June and form the next government; the only question is, how big that majority will be. But, whatever happens, they still will not have a majority in the House of Lords. The protocols are that the House of Lords will not seek to overturn the government of the day on any item of legislation that was included in the manifesto. So if the government intends to actually do anything in the next five years, without any obstreperous behaviour from the Upper House, then it will need to get elected explicitly on the platform of promising to do them.

And none of us who have been actively seeking reform in the residential sector could complain about the stated position on housing (while I appreciate it may not be to all EG readers’ liking). Theresa May delivered a solid indictment on the state of the UK’s housing sector. Speaking as a weary critic of our housing performance in the UK of many years standing, see past blogs ad nauseam, I do not think it could have been put any better.

Her position is basically an extension of her challenge to big business. While Mrs May remains committed to a market solution, she is intervening to encourage new entrants and boost housebuilding. The manifesto states: “For too long, careless developers, high land costs and poor planning have conspired to produce housing developments that do not enhance the lives of those living there.” If I get the chance, I might point out, ever so gently, to policy makers, that there is  rather more to it than this analysis, but the central tenet remains: I am afraid we have been defending the indefensible for too long.

On housing numbers, the manifesto re-commits to delivering 1m homes by the end of 2020. That’s actually pretty bold. But bolder still is that they have gone on to promise half a million more by the end of 2022. You cannot fault the ambition, but I bet the civil servants are having a collective fit of the vapours. The next few years will provide massively increased opportunities for housing associations. This could prove to be their defining moment, and it would behove them to stop acting like the worst kind of rapacious property developers (at least when it comes to building their private-for-sale stuff) and start exhibiting a bit more social conscience.

SME builders are also to be encouraged, as the government seeks to diversify the market, although it will be a tough policy to implement – we start from a very low base, the SME sector having been effectively eradicated over the past decade or more. But where this leaves the volume housebuilders (eight of which are still responsible for delivering a staggering 60% of all new stock) is anyone’s guess. To be fair, they have never, ever, promised to house the nation. And they’re big enough and bad enough to realise that they will, each of them, need a tailored strategy to rehabilitate their reputation to keep a future Conservative government onside.

Well! However it all lands, this is clearly the end to light-touch housing policy, at least for now. I suppose if your target is 1.5m new homes over the next five years, then a certain amount of command economy measures will have to beimplemented. The reinvigorated Homes and Communities Agency becomes ever more important. More on this to follow. But most of all, let us fervently hope that the right Minister (OK, cut to the chase: Gavin Barwell) will be (re)appointed to lead this vital work in post-Brexit Britain.

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