A housing policy in disarray

Worryingly for the housing and construction sectors, personnel changes may signal downgrading of housing policy at a time when housing is growing in importance.

To a large extent, the few housing policy announcements made at Labour and Tory conferences in September have been eclipsed by changes in the housing brief announced by both main parties in Monday’s ministerial and shadow ministerial reshuffles.

All the same, Kris Hopkins, MP for Keighley, has been appointed housing minister, taking over from Mark Prisk, who was axed after just over a year in the role.

Hopkins joins the Department for Communities and Local Government as an undersecretary of state, suggesting the role of housing minister has been demoted in the government’s ministerial hierarchy and reinforcing the impression that chancellor George Osborne is running housing policy from the Treasury.

Wolverhampton MP Emma Reynolds has replaced Jack Dromey as Labour’s shadow housing minister.

Worryingly for the housing and construction sectors, these changes may signal downgrading of housing policy at a time when housing is growing in importance in the public’s mind. 

For both Labour and the Tories, the reshuffle represents the third change in housing personnel since the general election in 2010: not a good sign with big hitters, such as former shadow housing minister and former housing minister Grant Shapps, seeing the housing portfolio as a stepping stone to higher ministerial rank.

This is very different from much of the post-war period where housing was a crucial and senior stand-alone ministry.

Yet housing is such a key area of activity in stimulating the economy and building a fair and healthy society that it merits special attention from political parties with ‘big beasts’ at the helm. So what can we expect from now until May 2015 from both main Parties?

The Tories will rely upon policies that featherbed home ownership and that denigrate social housing, reducing it further in the public mind as a second class tenure. This is exemplified by the second phase of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, which enables 95 per cent mortgages while providing guarantees for 15 per cent of housing purchase deposits, being launched three months earlier than originally planned.

David Cameron has defended the policy against the chief criticism from bodies as diverse as the All Party Parliamentary Group on housing and the Institute of Directors, which called the scheme ‘mad’, that it would create a housing bubble.

Cameron presents the same old Tory arguments for expanding home ownership (in the face of economic reality), despite all the lessons that should have been learnt from the last housing bubble, home owners borrowing off the back of housing assets, and the inability of UK housing supply to keep up with demand:

‘There is a need for government to act. Buying your first home is about far more than four walls to sleep at night. It’s somewhere to put down roots and raise a family. It’s an investment for the future. Above all, it’s a sign that everything you’ve put in has been worth it. Help to Buy is going to make the dream of home ownership a reality for many who would otherwise have been shut out. This goes right to the heart of my vision for Britain – a country where everyone who works hard can get on in life.’

So only those aspiring to, or being able to afford home ownership, with considerable taxpayer help, want to put down roots and raise a family?

The contrast with how people living in social housing are portrayed and treated is marked.

The assault on benefit recipients by Iain Duncan Smith will be intensified with young unemployed people losing their housing benefit and jobseekers allowance entitlements, unless they are ‘earning or learning’.

The ‘bedroom tax’ will continue despite causing misery and costing more than it saves.  This in the face of evidence including from my home city of Birmingham where just 75 one-bedroom council flats are available for immediate occupation with more than 11,000 waiting list applicants chasing them.

So what about the emerging housing policies that Emma Reynolds inherits?

Labour will repeal the ‘Bedroom Tax’ which sees housing benefit payments reduced for social tenants deemed to be under-occupying their homes. This is to be welcomed. Dromey described the policy in Brighton as a ‘once in a generation’ policy mistake.

Dromey also said in Brighton that housing will become a great national priority under a Labour government, although more evidence is required that this will be so. An ambitious policy aim is to increase the housebuilding rate to 200,000 a year by 2020; double the current rate, to be scoped by Sir Michael Lyons through a new commission to explore ways to ramp up housing supply.

Labour will also target land-hoarding developers as a key obstacle in the way of building new homes. Lifting council borrowing caps, reforming councils’ housing revenue accounts and abolishing the government’s affordable housing programme (anything but affordable as it sucks in housing benefit claims) will all help increase affordable supply.

Labour ruled out ending Right-to-Buy, the totemic Thatcherite policy which, despite being reinvigorated in 2012 with discounts quadrupled to £75,000, has seen only marginal changes in take-up and nothing on the scale of the 1980s and early 2000s.

Although being far from a settled and coherent housing policy, there are clear policy strands on which Emma Reynolds can build to shape a ‘One Nation’ housing strategy to present to voters in 2015.

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