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Brexit: Housing must not be ignored in the clamour

We’re almost nine months on from the EU Referendum and yet the issue remains the big divide across the nation: an issue that shows no sign of healing - with the future of housing one victim of the suspended animation that this country is in for the indefinite future.

With Article 50 not yet triggered, and then two years of negotiations until the UK is obliged to leave the EU - with or without a deal - it is stating the obvious to say that the government appears to have time for almost nothing apart from Brexit. 

During that two years there will not merely be discussions with Europe but also with the rest of the world.

While China is likely to be building more airports, while South Korea is set to become more dominant in automotive technology, as Germany becomes undisputed leader of Europe and even as the US under troubled President Trump begins an infrastructure renewal programme involving trillions of dollars ... the UK will be negotiating. 

The goal our leaders is for the UK to retain its role as the world’s fifth largest national economy - yes, we are to spend years negotiating to stay precisely where we are now.

Unsurprisingly, other initiatives that would occupy even a ‘hands off’ government now appear to be falling by the wayside, with housing one of the most obvious early victims. 

Just look at the evidence… 

Firstly there has been delay: we are four months on from Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s clear-cut announcement that there would be a ban on letting agents’ fees levied on tenants in England: no matter how unpopular the measure within our industry, there is a need for clarity and certainty, yet to date even the formal consultation period has yet to be triggered.

There was more delay with the Housing White Paper. There was a pledge at the Conservative Party conference by both Chancellor Hammond and Communities Secretary Sajid Javid that there would be “substantial measures” to alleviate the housing shortage announced “by Christmas.” The White Paper eventually came in February. A serious delay? Of course not...but at the start of a new government, when ministers appeared aching to take action in October, their two month target took four months to meet.

There was delay, too, on stamp duty reform - if it is to happen. The Chancellor was apparently minded to look at it in the Spring Budget but, again, wanted more time. 

Secondly there has been abandoned policy: the heavily-promoted pledge to build 200,000 starter homes at 20 per cent below market price - announced by David Cameron in early 2016 and championed by the current government when it came to office in the second half of last year - has been kicked away. 

Housing minister Gavin Barwell said last week in a response to a parliamentary question: “Starter homes will form an important part of our programmes to help over 200,000 people become home owners by the end of the Parliament. The number delivered will depend on what local authorities consider most appropriate to respond to housing need in their area.”

Thirdly, there are likely to be further slowdowns in meeting what targets remain.

Many industry figures - even Conservative supporters - were distinctly underwhelmed by the modest ambition of the Housing White Paper. Now even ill-defined targets contained in it may be under threat according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors which warns that almost 200,000 EU workers may be lost to construction projects - including residential ones - if Britain loses access to the single market.

RICS says some eight per cent of UK construction workers are EU nationals - around 176,500 mostly-skilled workers - with a third of construction professionals insisting their projects and businesses relied heavily on foreign labour.

Might the foreign labour stay? Might just as many be accessible post-Brexit? Who knows - but the problem right now is that we’re likely to spend two years before knowing for sure.

So what is there to do about a government that appears already to have ‘done’ housing until the next election and is concentrating on Brexit, the only show in town? 

Realistically, only heavy lobbying of ministers, MPs and parties stands will offer even the slightest chance of politicians giving some attention to housing: and remember, those involved in every other policy that feels unloved in this Brexit-fixated era will be doing the same thing, so competition will be fierce.

So while Britain’s leaders appear on a treadmill with the objective of simply remaining where we are, it’s up to our industry to remind politicians day-in, day-out about a housing crisis that is still providing too few homes for people - inside or outside the EU.

*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn

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