28 June 2012
Business Secretary Vince Cable has in recent weeks upped the debate on house building and yesterday called together a mix of top folk from across the housing spectrum to chat about ideas for financing more homes.
It’s encouraging. It indicates that the Government is eager to improve the wretched state of house building. But it’s also worrying. Last November the Coalition launched a “radical and unashamedly ambitious” housing strategy for England. What of that?
The nation, it would seem, still craves a solution to a problem that was festering well before the credit crunch and has since become twice as bad.
It is into this political context that today the left-leaning think tank IPPR launched a blueprint for a wide-ranging housing strategy.
Since moving into opposition the Labour party has criticised the Government’s housing policy and performance, but has yet to set out a coherent strategy.
That makes the IPPR’s contribution interesting. It will inevitably irritate numerous groups – a point well made by Jules Birch in his blog for Inside Housing – and in the normal politics of the left it will most likely be attacked savagely from its many factions.
But in modern politics the evolution of ideas often starts with think tanks and Labour housing minister Jack Dromey warmly welcomed the report saying it will play important part in helping inform Labour’s housing policy review.
There is definitely a lot in it. It certainly doesn’t oversimplify the problems. It also avoids any suggestion that there is a silver bullet ready for loading that will cure the nation’s housing ills.
Whether you agree with the IPPR’s suggestions or not the 120-page document “Together at home: A new strategy for housing” does highlight the complex tensions and conflicts present in the UK’s housing system. And, even though it is very wide-ranging, there are still numerous other important issues that could easily have been included or discussed more widely.
The report is wise in highlighting the complexity and the conflicts. It makes the point that this is a big reason why “housing policy has been bedevilled by initiatives rather than strategy for many years”. That sentiment pretty much sums up my view when the latest Government housing strategy was launched last November.
Looked at from a construction perspective the report is fervently pro-building. But despite arguing for more homes and greater homeownership there is plenty within it to annoy the house builders’ lobby.
It is packed with suggestions that will irritate someone, such as building on green belt land or increasing competition between private house builders through separating the processes of land acquisition and house-building will
And what some may see as interesting is that the IPPR’s report is informed by the view that homeownership should be expanded. It argues that by giving people a greater stake in their area this will foster mixed, stable and integrated communities.
It also argues that the reforms of the current Government to push power and responsibility to a local level are half-hearted. It wants to see more power and more responsibility devolved.
It says that councils should have more scope to shape local housing policy relevant to the circumstances they face. And to help them do that it pushes the case for relaxing the existing financial constraints to allow more freedom to invest in new homes.
This approach chimes with the growing lobby calling for “bricks not benefits”, which argues it is crazy to pay £20 billion a year in housing benefits to private landlords when councils could, in many cases, more cost effectively build homes to house those in need.
But for the construction industry the proposed policy that may have the biggest impact on new house building is the case it makes for new towns. This policy is in line with the growing cross-party consensus forming that believes that without creating new towns the nation will fail to match its housing need.
The tricky part is turning the idea into workable policy. Here IPPR presents various ways to reduce opposition. It then argues the case that once suitable locations have been identified a government agency should use compulsory purchase orders to buy swathes of land from landowners in these areas.
This land would be bought at a low multiple of agricultural land, which would be substantially cheaper than the price paid currently for land with planning permission.
But rather than imposing a heavily planned architectural framework on the new town, IPPR pushes the case for consumer choice and competition between house builders.
It tries to answer many questions, but inevitably leaves many unanswered or open to dispute.
For me the real question is whether we will see Labour in opposition develop a housing strategy that rests on policies such as building new towns, enforcing the compulsory purchase of swathes of land, building on the green belt, expanding homeownership and devolving more power over housing policy to local authorities.
Who knows? But it will certainly be interesting to see how Labour positions itself in the coming months as it develops its ideas on how to rescue housing and house building from the biggest challenge in 50 years.