Housing Blues

Last week’s Conservative Party conference didn’t offer much hope for our sector. As I predicted in my July blog Johnson on housing, the government’s primary objective is to boost hime ownership, and there was barely a mention of any plans to invest in social housing.

Communities Minister Robert Jenrick and his deputy as Housing Minister Esther McVey (he was once her deputy – how times change!) both said they were “tenure blind” but the tenor of their speeches and comments during the week was very clear. Here’s a précis:

“The property-owning democracy is a perpetual goal for which our party strives to ensure thatevery generation has the opportunity to benefit… I believe in ownership as the bulwark of individual freedom, bringing security, dignity and independence… As Conservatives, weknow that owning a home is not just about the four walls around you, it’s about investingin your family, saving for the future and putting down roots in a community (can’t peoplein social housing also put down roots?)… We are on the side of hard-working people who want the sense of security that comes with homeownership.. We are on the side of hard- working people who want to play their part in our property-owning democracy.”

And so on and so on.

The big announcement was a proposal that all new housing association homes for rent should be eligible for shared ownership, with occupants buying as little as 10% of their homes initially, rising in 1% chunks. This follows on from the recent policy announcement (login required) that aims to revamp and revive shared ownership.

This could be extended to existing homes “on a voluntary basis”, an echo of the Voluntary Right to Buy (VRTB) deal that was struck with the National Housing Federation in 2015. Many commentators felt that this would make it harder for providers to build new homes, especially if it’s made a condition of grant, which could deter lenders.

Take up is predicted to be low: Shelter ran the figures and showed that 75% of social housing tenants couldn’t afford it, rising to 94% in London. Who wants to own 10% of their home and be responsible for 100% of repairs, especially if, given current concerns about fire safety, you’re handed a bill for thousands of pounds to remove cladding?

If this scheme proves unpopular, I can imagine that VRTB will be put back on the table.

The conference did offer some light relief, with Esther McVey’s revelation that architects are now using computers to design houses in 3D causing much merriment. As one wag pointed out, living in a 2D house would be rather uncomfortable. But two aspects of her speech were slightly encouraging: first, the pledge to increase supply to 300,000 homes a year and, second, the desire to open up the housebuilding industry to smaller builders. Ending the semi-cartel of the big builders will be a big advance, and if both of these ambitions are achieved it’ll be a GOOD THING.

Three other announcements made during the week are worth noting. First: a national design guide “to deliver beautifully designed homes”. This will be an annexe to the National Planning Policy Framework and will be a “material consideration” in planning decisions.This is described as “a broader commitment to localism” and will allow local communities to challenge ugly schemes (ie, it’s a nimby charter!). It flows directly from Create Streets and Roger Scruton’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission.

As I pointed out  previously, there’s a clear contradiction between this noble ambition and what’s happening on the ground with Permitted Development Rights,allowing thousands of rabbit hutch ugly homes to be created up and down the land.
The second announcement was a consultation on a Future Homes standard, to ensure new homes are built without gas by 2025, and with other “green” characteristics.

The third was the announcement of an imminent “Accelerated planning Green Paper” to reform the planning system. This is the old chestnut of red tape getting in the way of good design and new supply. It’ll aim to speed up the planning process and allow homeowners to extend in certain situations without the need for planning permission, and for commercial properties in high streets to be turned into housing.

I’ve already mentioned the problems caused by relaxation of planning rules in Permitted Development Rights and how this conflicts with “beauty” and national standards on space. If homeowners of detached properties can add two storeys without permission, will we see a similar conflict with the idea of “beauty” and good design? If neighbours can’t object, then what will this do for community cohesion?

The problem with planning is that planning departments are inadequately staffed, as a result of local government cuts. There’s a lack of strategic planning in many areas. The government says application fees will “be reviewed to ensure council planning departments are properly resourced, providing more qualified planners to process applications for new homes and other proposals”. Presumably this means that fees will go up? I’m not sure how this helps, since it’s likely to deter some applications or encourage people to bypass planning altogether.

All in all, this was a disappointing week for our sector and for housing in general. UnderTheresa May’s premiership we were starting to see some progress on social housing, but it seems this forward advance has been halted. But to end on a positive (or naively optimistic) note, politics just now is in a highly febrile state so things could change relatively soon!

(This blog first appeared on the Housing Quality Network on 10th October 2019. See here)

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