If the Tories want to fix the housing crisis, they need to think regionally

Theresa May addresses the National Housing Summit in September 2018. Image: Getty.

This month marks seven months since the re-launch of the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Back in March, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed an audience of town planners, urban designers, and developers promising to reform the system to promote more equal access to housing.

Since that speech, a new housing minister has been appointed, the government have announced a prospectus for new Garden Towns, the NPPF has undergone a further revision, and just last month May herself announced an extra £2bn in funding for social housing. Yet, despite all this, nothing seems to have really changed.

Although the £2bn for social housing gained May a rare standing ovation, her critics point out the funding won’t be available until 2022 and might eventually only deliver around 5,000 new homes. The call for new sustainable towns sounds equally ambitious, but a closer examination of the detail suggests the programme simply seeks to rebrand existing proposals. Although these announcements sound radical, neither is backed by the funding or decision-making powers necessary increase supply in the short to medium terms.

There have been no announcements on further commitments to infrastructure which would make poorly connected areas viable locations for development. Likewise, until extremely recently, there has been no mention of additional powers for Local Authorities to raise funds to build more council homes. Perhaps most disappointingly, the promotion of Garden Towns has not been accompanied by a discussion around shifting the dynamic of taxation from properties to land.

In the absence of any tangible increase in funding, May has previously sought to target disingenuous developers who hoard land to artificially inflate house prices. Given the Conservative’s predisposition to private delivery, the big stick mooted by the PM has been largely rhetorical.


Whilst reform in this area is undoubtedly welcome, forcing developers to accelerate build out rates won’t stop them overbidding for sites in the first place – nor will it address the local aversion to change that slows delivery. Most importantly perhaps, oversimplifying the roles of local communities and developers as heroes and villains respectively belies the multifaceted nature of pressures on housing. 

In September, Sky News published the results of detailed analysis that sought to dispel the myth of a monolithic national housing crises. Through an in-depth mapping exercise, its research argued the UK is simultaneously undergoing five separate crises related to a lack of both supply and demand, under-occupation, quality and credit. The analysis rebuffs the binary debate of supply and demand, rejecting the idea that building 300,000 homes a year is the answer to many of the challenges the UK faces.

The findings also demonstrate how the health of any given housing market is inexplicitly linked to strength of the local economy. It should come as no shock that the areas blighted by a lack of demand and quality are also characterised by high levels of deprivation and unemployment.

May’s government has rightly attracted some praise for discussing housing in more nuanced terms. It wasn’t too long ago that national discourse was reduced to an oversimplified, and often artificial choice of brownfield verses green belt development. Whilst the evolution beyond this is welcome, last month’s findings suggest housing policy requires far greater regional specificity if it is to address issues around social justice and equality.

Policy dreamt up in Westminster has a distinctly southern focus and is ill-equipped to deal with such a complex array of challenges. Solutions for the housing crisis must also be thought of in more holistic terms, taking in economic regeneration, infrastructure and the environment. Crucially, policy needs to be backed by adequate funds, power and long-term planning.

Until the government thinks in these terms, kind words on housing will continue to undermine social mobility rather than promote it.

Jas Bhalla is an architect and town planner.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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