“Rigid, inflexible, dogma doesn’t get houses built”: what does the Tory manifesto tell us about housing policy?

Well, I'm convinced. Image: Getty.

As the lobby journalists left Halifax to return to their desks, on a very rickety northern rail train, we were left wondering: what did the launch of the Conservative manifesto tell us about where housing is on Theresa May’s agenda?

Well, quite a lot really. The first thing that you notice is the tone. In the lead up to the publication of the manifesto there had been a range of pieces trying to pin down what “May-ism” is. None of them successfully did this – indeed, today Theresa May denied there even was such a thing – but there are certain themes that since May took over as PM have been a touchstone for her Premiership.

They are all here in the manifesto. You can tick them off one by one: references to governing for everybody, a belief in the role of government to intervene and, critically, lots of references to the interests of “ordinary working families”. There is also a rejection of “rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous”.

From a housing perspective this is welcome. Rigid, inflexible, dogma definitely does not get houses built. Trusting responsible people and organisations to work flexibly does.

For too long housing policy has had a strong whiff of dogma about it – particularly around tenure. The view that all paths led to home ownership didn’t reflect the different circumstances in which people live, or the economics of modern society. It was something that we have consistently challenged and the outgoing government, to their credit, started to listen – with a significant shift in the last Autumn Statement.

In addition to this increased pragmatism, there is much else about the tone of the Conservative manifesto that gives us cause for optimism. Firstly, and most importantly, there is a real show of faith in the housing association sector, which is framed not as a problem to be solved, but as a key part of the solution to the housing crisis that the country faces.

We have worked hard as a sector to strengthen our relationships with all parties, and all parts of government. But, more importantly, our solid relationships have been built on a strong, growing and demonstrable track record in driving supply.

Our own figures show this. In 2015-16 housing associations made over 40,000 starts, and we are expecting to see an increase when the figures for 2016-17 are shortly available. This could put us on track to deliver our aspiration of building 250,000 homes over the next five years.


Parties have woken up to the fact that housing associations are a growing player in supply terms – providing a range of homes for different groups, for rent and sale, as well as supported housing for thousands older and vulnerable people.

The other welcome signal is an acknowledgement that a sensible housing policy needs to take a broad view which recognises that there is life outside of London and the South East. The manifesto talks about rebalancing housing development across the country, and rightly sees housing in the context of a modern industrial strategy.

The drivers behind this may be political – with a desire to have an offer that reaches far into areas that are not traditional Conservative strongholds. But the impact is welcome – and would be felt in places like Greater Manchester, West Midlands and the North East.

There are of course areas where more detail is needed. For instance, whilst we are really pleased to see a commitment to work with housing associations to build more specialist housing, we know this cannot happen without sustainable long-term funding for supported housing. We will be working with whoever forms the next government to make sure this is understood and addressed.

However, on the whole there is much in here that housing associations will welcome. We share the supply ambitions that the manifesto sets out, we welcome the tone of collaboration and partnership, and we echo the view that a national housing policy needs to reflect the challenges that are faced in very different markets.

As a sector, housing associations deliver a lot - but we are ambitious to do even more.  Whoever enters Number 10 on 9 June, we are ready to work in partnership to do just that.

Rob Warm is head of member engagement at the National Housing Federation.

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What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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