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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