Never have Supertramp’s words rung so true

COMMENT: Hot on the heels of the somewhat troubled reshuffle last Monday, with the “elevation” of housing to a cabinet post, came a rash of press releases to communicate just how much housing activity the government is involved in.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government blasted out that “350,000 people across the UK have now used the government’s Help-to-Buy schemes to help them cross the threshold and buy their own home”. In one of his first statements as housing minister, Dominic Raab said: “This government is committed to helping more people get on the housing ladder, with the support of a range of low-cost home ownership products. “Thanks to… (Help to Buy)… the dream of home ownership continues to become a reality for thousands more households across the country”.

Fighting talk. Of sorts. But I am not at all sure the guys were well-advised to lead with this one. The argument was always that Help to Buy may have been economically illiterate (see blog 4 October 2017), but it made excellent political sense, at least in Conservative Party terms, helping 300,000-plus people get on to the property ladder (who would then hopefully vote the right way).

But to say the shine was taken off entirely with the news of the £110m pay-out to Persimmon chief executive Jeff Fairburn just before Christmas would be something of an understatement. No, I wouldn’t have started with that one.

A much safer bit of puff came out the next day as the HCA was relaunched as “Homes England” in Alconbury (I bet the wind was biting – whipping straight in off the Urals) by our “new” housing secretary Sajid Javid. The Ministry of Housing was bold with: “Homes England will play a major role in fixing the housing market by helping to deliver an average of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s.”

Now I am tempted to point out (waspishly) that this target date is somewhat …err…fluid. But I will keep my cynicism to myself, since I am seriously optimistic about Homes England.  And I have been on the record about this for some time. And I speak as someone who suffered severely at the “computer says no” hands of the old HCA (my company UKR was subjected to seriously shocking treatment; and we were far from alone. But I genuinely think all of that is now happily behind us).

The housing secretary was hosted at Alconbury (potential for 5,000 homes) by my old mates at Urban & Civic and accompanied by Homes England chair Sir (shouldn’t that be Saint?) Ed Lister and (ever the Game Boy) chief executive Nick Walkley. Nick is on a roll. He says, quite bluntly: “We will use our land, finance and expertise to expand the delivery of affordable new homes and connect ambitious partners to remove barriers to housebuilding.”

Now then! This is rather better fighting talk altogether. These boys are making a serious fist of this job. Their newly focused agency has a lot to prove and deserves all our support.

Then yet another breathless announcement on Sunday (never mind that this was originally announced in the Budget) of a “vital independent review into understanding why hundreds of thousands of homes haven’t been built, despite having planning permission” by a “panel of experts” to be chaired by Sir Oliver Letwin. This will look into why only just over half of the 684,000 homes with planning permission have been completed (as of July 2016). Now, there may be those of us who think we could tell the panel the answers to that in three or four well-chosen sentences, but what do we know? The MHCLG then went on to promise that the panel will “make recommendations on practical steps to increase the speed of build out”. And that will be interesting…

So, the MHCLG press office has been working round the clock. And lovely people as I know them to be, they will just have to forgive me if that daft expression “fine words butter no parsnips” comes to mind. Particularly as the news of Carillion’s compulsory liquidation on Monday morning swept everything else away. As the UK’s second-largest contractor, the ramifications of the collapse will continue to send shockwaves through our industry (and the country) for months to come. But make no mistake, this is yet another symptom of a deep malaise. Put that utter shudder together with the continuing aftershock of the Grenfell Tower disaster, not to mention the structural shifts in the construction industry due to Brexit, and don’t tell me we aren’t still in deep do-do, no matter how many announcements are made.

Brings to mind the 1975 album (sorry) by dear old Supertramp: Crisis? What crisis? 

We still need brand new models of housing delivery. We still need a complete paradigm shift. We still need to find the answers.

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