I’m not talking of the actual numbers used in the New Build Bingo that goes on between the parties - “We’re building 200,000 a year” against “No, we need 300,000 a year.”
Instead I’m talking about something more fundamental: I’m calling for honesty on the powers of government to build any homes at all.
This week’s Budget saw another bold claim, this time from Chancellor Rishi Sunak. This is what he said: “ …£11.5 billion to build up to 180,000 new affordable homes.”
This aim is both laudable and necessary, and heaven knows we need more affordable homes, but there’s just one hitch - the government does not build homes, and that money is to be allocated to identify and remediate land on which the housing may be built.
What it certainly is not, is a guarantee that those homes will be built.
This isn’t a party political point, as Labour has engaged in the same tub-thumping about house building targets as have the Conservatives. For good or bad, both major parties agree that it’s no longer the job of the state to build homes in any great volume.
So why do politicians suggest, sometimes through cleverly-phrased wording, that their governments are effectively building ‘x’ number of homes?
Partly, of course, it’s because politicians think people will vote for a clearly ‘good’ policy such as house building for future generations; partly, I suspect, it’s because politicians don’t want the public to see they don’t have real power over such a basic provision. And maybe it’s because MPs don’t want to admit to themselves that they have no power.
In the misty past of the post-World War Two era, councils would routinely build more homes than private developers and until the Thatcher government councils were still constructing 100,000 or more homes per year - but now that figure has plummeted.
And in England there is still Right To Buy meaning the net size of council stock is difficult to grow as homes are sold off, and anyway very few local authorities have anything that could be described honestly as a ‘house building programme.’
In reality, of course, decisions on the overwhelming majority of house building are with de-velopers running private companies.
They - naturally enough - act in the interests of their shareholders and investors. Why should they act in the wider public interest or for the benefit of politicians, when govern-ment itself chooses to leave it to the private sector?
I’m not arguing for or against this privatisation of house-building, but merely asking for more political candour.
If government won’t grasp the nettle of building homes itself, why pretend it has control over the numbers being built?
We would laugh if government told us how many cars it would build next year (even though public money is spent to ensure private car manufacturers locate their factories in certain areas); likewise vast sums of public cash subsidise what’s left of the steel industry, yet we wouldn’t expect political leaders to pledge to produce ‘x’ million tonnes in 2022.
So why do we even accept, let alone expect, politicians to make hollow and inevitably bro-ken pledges on house building figures?
It’s absurd, yet we seem to go along with it.
It’s time to politely but firmly say what it is - nonsense.
*Editor of Estate Agent Today, Letting Agent Today and Landlord Today, Graham can be found tweeting about all things property at @PropertyJourn