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New homes: Sajid and Gavin must do better

Now I’m not one to lose sleep over politicians, but it strikes me that Communities Secretary Sajid Javid and Housing Minister Gavin Barwell may be about to be embarking on a fool’s errand when it comes to new homes.

If well-informed journalists are right, Javid and Barwell are about to get tough with NIMBYs opposed to almost any new homes in their back yard or (in the case of some pressure groups like the Campaign to Protect Rural England) almost anywhere in the country. 

The get-tough vehicle is to be a White Paper, expected to be released later this month, and aiming to at last create a step-change in the volume of UK house building.

The problem for Javid and Barwell is that most of the uber-NIMBYs are in exactly the parts of the country where more homes are needed most - the Home Counties, for example. And those same parts tend to consist of constituencies held by Conservative MPs.

So we may be about to embark this spring on a tussle between Conservatives who want to leave a legacy of actually increasing new-build volumes, and those who want to do all they can to build even bigger majorities in the constituencies they currently hold. 

The problem is, this tussling - and possibly much of the White Paper - may be a waste of time unless something even more fundamental is done to ensure building takes place.

Let me explain what I mean.

We all know that successive housing ministers have set targets for new homes: 200,000 a year has been the most popular target of late, extended into one million over five years. 

And we also know that the past decade has been marked by spectacular failures year after year: the new homes simply have not been built.

Many of these housing ministers - John Healey in Gordon Brown’s Labour government, for example, and Mark Prisk and Brandon Lewis under David Cameron’s administrations - are intelligent, informed, serious politicians. They do not make targets to get quick headlines, especially as they know the humiliating legacy they leave if they fail to meet those targets.

The problem these ministers have faced time after time is that they have not controlled house building - they have merely tried to control the conditions for house building.

So these ministers created structures like the National Planning Policy Framework, New Homes Bonus, even Help To Buy. But house builders have not built - at least not in the quantities and at price-points that help remedy what we all call ‘the housing crisis.’

It’s not the fault of the house builders. They are privately owned, often publicly quoted, so operate to make a profit; they are under few social obligations, and under none at all when it comes to making up for government shortcomings. 

Just because a housing minister may make planning slightly quicker does not mean Persimmon or Barratt Homes has to come running and build what and where the government wants. That’s not the developers’ business - that’s government’s business.

So (and I return here to a theme I have explored before) is it not time to return to direct house building: what used to be called ‘council housing’ but could and should have something of a 21st century title these days. Perhaps ‘community housing’?

I’m more than aware that council housing has an image problem dating from the 1970s and 1980s; and I’m honest enough to admit that I’d rather live in a privately-owned home (ie, my owner-occupied house) than in one owned by the council or the government.

But surely we have enough evidence now to show that affordable housing, whether to buy or to rent, is not an inevitable benefit of planning reform, or incentives to buyers. 

Put bluntly, if affordable housing isn’t profitable for house builders - irrespective of government targets or initiatives - it simply doesn’t get built.

So why not create a 21st century modern brand to describe 2017-style council housing to satisfy those parts of the community not served by traditional house builders?

Without this, I have a feeling that Sajid Javid and Gavin Barwell will have several months of fruitless arguing: even if they win their argument and NIMBYs are put back in their boxes, there’s no guarantee that the house builders will provide the type of homes at the prices required to help those currently living in overcrowded conditions, or worse. 

Unless that happens, we risk being back to square one within a few years. And, by then, we’ll have even more people disillusioned with politicians and house builders alike.

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

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