Stately homes: an interventionist approach to housebuilding?

Can Theresa May build a strong and stable housing market based on the lofty pledges in the Conservative manifesto?

Remember the good old days when no one, including most politicians, read election manifestos? That was before voters had a real choice. Now the public has been presented with three very different paths; however, they all include lofty housebuilding targets and a government not afraid to get its hands dirty.

An internationalist approach was once thought the preserve of a Labour government; however, all parties have twigged they will need to intervene to build the number of homes that Britain needs after decades of failing to do so.

Housing targets

Labour has echoed the Tories’ pledge to build one million homes by 2020; the Tories have upped their bid to pledge a further 500,000 homes by 2022.

The Liberal Democrats have promised only 300,000 new homes a year. However, given that only 190,640 homes were built between 30 September 2015 and 31 December 2016, this seemingly modest target is still an ambitious step up, and is perhaps the most realistic of the three.

However, people can’t live in pledges. While ambitious targets are welcomed, the feasibility of reaching them has to be questioned.

Mark Hayward, Chief Executive, NAEA Propertymark and David Cox, Chief Executive, ARLA Propertymark, commented, “The housing market is in crisis. We are simply not building enough homes to meet the demand from both the private rented and sales sectors. We are concerned that housing has become a political football for future governments to score points against each other and this is getting in the way of actually ensuring we have the right sort of houses available, in the right areas, across all tenures, to provide the homes that people need.

“Only 32,000 affordable homes were built in 2016, which hasn’t made a dent; although the parties are pledging to build hundreds of thousands of new homes, we need to seriously consider if such pledges are even remotely practically possible. As we have said many times, we need to take the politics out of housing and consider other ways to ease the pressure on housebuilding that will allow us to provide a more accessible and affordable housing market for all.”

The skills crisis

In a controversial move to sate the majority of voters who ticked ‘no’ on 23 June 2016, Theresa May has pledged to double the Immigration Skills Charge to £2,000, using the money generated to invest in higher levels skills training for workers in the UK. Labour has also said it would end freedom of movement, and introduce an integrated housing and skills policy. Neither party have offered a bridging solution on how the construction workforce would be supplemented in the meantime. The Lib Dems, of course, have made a reversal of Brexit central to their campaign.

Lewis Johnston, RICS Parliamentary Affairs Manager, said, “The Prime Minister made it clear that her government intends to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. Whilst this was included in the last Conservative manifesto, against the backdrop of Brexit it is now a statement of intent with renewed vigour. The concern is that such a target will take no account of the need for skilled workers – we must not sacrifice the needs of the UK construction sector for the sake of an arbitrary target.

“Currently, 17% of the UK’s construction workforce were born outside of the UK, and it is a recurring concern across the built environment sector that excessive restrictions on immigration could jeopardise the delivery of the housing, infrastructure and construction projects the UK badly needs. The skills issue is even starker in the context of Brexit. Recent RICS figures showed that 8% of the UK construction workforce comes from the EU leaving 176,500 construction jobs at risk should we lose access to the single market without alternative plans. This could jeopardise a predicted £500bn pipeline of projects.”

The role of local authorities

All parties have promised to restore house-building powers to local authorities and help housing associations to deliver more homes. “News of Theresa May’s plans to support local councils and help deliver much-needed affordable homes, as well as loosening laws around turning derelict sites into land on which to build new homes is very much welcomed,” Home Quality Mark Project Lead Gwyn Roberts said. “There has been a long tradition that council homes have often been built to much higher standards than private rented homes, therefore, we must ensure that what is delivered is of the highest quality and future-ready.

David Orr, Chief Executive at the National Housing Federation, added, “This is a real show of faith in the housing association sector’s ability to deliver the homes the nation needs. Housing associations are rightly seen as having a key role in the delivery of new homes – in partnership with Government, the sector will build hundreds of thousands of new homes for those who need them most.”

The Green Belt

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives have reiterated their promise to protect the Green Belt. Labour has followed suite, pledging to prioritise brownfield land. Perhaps shockingly, the Liberal Democrats have let their promise to protect the Green Belt slip quietly from their manifesto.

Divine intervention?

While all political parties have honed in on housing, Britain’s housing crisis is more than just a slogan and it cannot be solved with mere pledges. “Crucial to the success of all of these housing plans will be a faster and more efficient planning system which is currently hugely under-resourced; an unswerving commitment from politicians at all levels and of all parties to place the need for new homes at the heart of local and national decision-making; a clear commitment to tackling the nation’s chronic construction skills shortage through investment in trade apprenticeships, training and recruitment to meet homebuilders’ current and future skill needs; and the political will to build the decent, affordable homes that are so badly needed,” said Nicholas Harris, Chief Executive, Stonewater.

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