Early this month, Theresa May used the Conservative Party conference to set out her vision for a more interventionist government, particularly in her pledges to tackle housing shortages and renew infrastructure across the country.
The prime minister marked a shift from the previous administration by emphasising the fundamental role that tackling housing problems would play in addressing economic and social inequality, and signalled that this was a growing priority for her government. She also rightly diagnosed the need to build more homes as the key challenge in addressing the UK’ s housing affordability crisis, whereas previous governments have focused on home ownership.
May’s speech was reflected by further announcements during the week from the chancellor, Phillip Hammond, and communities secretary Sajid Javid, who promised an extra £3bn for the Home Building Fund and £2bn for plans to convert publicly owned brownfield land into housing. Significantly, Hammond also suggested that he is prepared to borrow more in order to fund investment in infrastructure, which could help cities to unlock more housing development (although the chancellor has since made it clear that this approach would not amount to a “fiscal splurge” by the Government).
However, promises to build more homes and boost infrastructure are hardly unique or revolutionary, and indeed form a central plank of every major party’ s policy programme: only the level of ambition in housing targets differs between different parties. These commitments to house building have been a welcome development in recent years, but too often have not been accompanied with the necessary focus on where these homes are most urgently needed, and therefore where they ought to be built.
For the new government to succeed where others have failed, it must commit to opening up more land for housing and development in the UK’ s most successful and least affordable cities – and that will mean taking potentially contentious decisions, such as re-assessing land currently designated as green belt.
Given these challenges, Sajid Javid’s warning that too many people across the country “object to houses being built next to us” – an attitude that he says has to end – was perhaps closest to articulating the sea-change that needs to take place for the government to achieve its aims. As Javid noted, “local leaders must be prepared to make difficult calls, even if they’ re unpopular” to unlock the land and homes needed for the continued growth of our most successful places.
This change in tone is welcome – but the onus is now on national government to set out a policy platform that supports local leaders in taking the tough decisions necessary to deliver on its housing targets. That means, for example, offering places more control over tax revenue generated in their areas, including stamp duty , to give them greater incentives to tackle housing shortages in their areas. It also means empowering the new metro mayors due to come into place next year to take the necessary decisions to unlock more land for development in their city-regions, such as building on the green belt.
With the polls and recent boundary changes suggesting that the Conservatives will have a strong majority in places such as the Home Counties for the foreseeable future, the government has an opportunity in the forthcoming Autumn Statement to translate Javid’ s rhetoric into practical policies to overcome the NIMBYs. Failing to do so will mean repeating the mistakes of its predecessors, by shying away from the difficult decisions needed to deliver the housing and infrastructure that UK cities need.
Edward Clarke is an analyst at the Centre for Cities.
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