The housing white paper, communities secretary Sajid Javid said in his speech to the Commons, is a “bold, radical vision” which will “meet our obligation to build many more houses, of the type people want to live in, and [in] the places they want to live”. That sounds great – so you’d imagine it’d be getting a fair number of plaudits from the wonkosphere, right?
“Government must go further to tackle the housing crisis,” was the IPPR’s response from the left. “A missed opportunity,” replied the Adam Smith Institute from the right.
And those were just think tanks. The specialist housing campaigners were even less appreciative. “White Paper leaves most renters without long term homes”, said Generation Rent. “What we need now is quick and bold action that helps people in need of a decent home tomorrow not in ten years,” concluded Shelter. PricedOut put it more simply: “The government has bottled it.”
Even Grant Shapps – the same Grant Shapps who, as Tory housing minister, who used to get booed at housing conferences – was scathing. “Housing ministers over the years have come out with documents or bills, and the truth is none of them are going to make much difference,” he said. “And I don’t suppose this will make that much difference either.”
So, that’s all good.
Where did it all go wrong? The housing white paper, after all, measures that are, if not the bold, radical vision Javid promised us, certainly steps in the right direction. It contains rather a lot of them, in fact: Letting Agent Today (yes) published a story under the headline, “Here are all 29 key points in the Housing White Paper”, which gives you some sense of quite how difficult this thing is to summarise. Here are some of the bigger ones.
Firstly, there’s the “build, build, build” stuff. The white paper acknowledges that successive governments have failed to get Britain building enough (duh), and attempts to correct this. That means forcing councils to produce more realistic housing plans for their areas, which is new, and promising to release public land for new housing, which isn’t.
It also wants to put more pressure on housebuilders to get on with the job. It’ll use a £3bn fund to encourage smaller firms back into the market, in an effort to increase competition. It’ll also slash the maximum time developers can sit on a site with planning permission without building anything, from three years to two, in an attempt to prevent land-banking. Those are the sticks: the carrot is a streamlined planning process, which will, among other things, make it easier to add extra storeys to increase density in urban areas.
Lastly, there are a few crumbs for renters. It’ll encourage the development of new private rental housing with longer, more secure tenancies, backed by institutional investors. (Unlike individual buy-to-let landlords, pension funds are unlikely to refuse to replace a broken boiler, say, on the grounds that they can’t afford it.) It’ll also ban letting agent fees. And it’ll introduce banning orders, to force the worst landlords and agents out of the market.
Al these things are, if not revolutionary, at least good. They will help, a bit. The same cannot be said of many of the Cameron-era interventions, notably Help to Buy.
So why the widespread gnashing of teeth? The explanations seem to lie in the things that aren’t in the white paper.
Take the stuff about councils. Getting them to plan for more houses is all very well – many, especially in leafy Tory areas like Bromley, have behaved in a way that suggests they think the housing crisis was something that just happened to other people. But it’s not clear that, seven years into austerity, councils have the sort of resources or expertise in their planning department to do this.
It’s also weirdly mis-targeted. Councils don’t build housing: housebuilders do. Councils can plan all they want, but they can’t force private firms to build. And there is nothing in the white paper to help either councils or housing associations start building at scale – which is a shame, because they’d like to and are less motivated than private firms to keep house prices high at all costs.
The tenants’ rights stuff is a damp squib, too. The longer contracts will only apply to new, “build to rent” homes, and the investors who own them will likely want long-term tenants anyway simply because they’re a better investment: the government intervention may be unnecessary.
What’s more, those homes won’t appear for years, and will probably favour richer tenants when they eventually do. So the vast, vast majority of Britain’s renters, stuck in existing homes with smaller-scale landlords, still have no access to a secure home on the horizon. As Graeme Brown, the interim chief executive of Shelter, said in a statement: “What we need now is quick and bold action that helps people in need of a decent home tomorrow not in ten years.”
But the biggest gap in the white paper, the thing that’ll render all the good stuff in there almost meaningless, is – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – land. The reason we aren’t building enough homes is because – in the cities where demand is highest – restrictions like the green belt mean we don’t have enough places to put them. We either need to build out (so rethink the green belt); or we need to build up (which means knocking a bunch of stuff down and starting again). Physically, these things are easy to do; politically they aren’t.
And this white paper makes no attempt. It promises to protect the green belt, despite the fact that chunks of it aren’t green and are nestled right up against transport links. It bangs on, as government housing policies always have, about making use of brownfield and densification.
Well, those are the things we do now. They haven’t worked. Brownfield-first strategies are more complex, so take longer. They also cost more, since they often mean clearing occupied, contaminated or otherwise difficult sites. All this is possible – but it will take a concerted government effort and probably quite a lot of money. There is a reason that, of the two big east London regeneration sites, Stratford, which hosted the Olympics, has happened and Barking Riverside didn’t and hasn’t.
All these things can be fixed. A government that really wanted to take a radical approach to housing could say to landlords that tenant security was more important so, sorry, they were going to lose a few rights. It could be honest about the fact that this crisis wasn’t going to be solved through platitudes about brownfield, that the green belt needed review, and that a few golf courses and bits of framland was a small price to pay to build the homes we needed. The government didn’t have the guts to do any of those things.
It’s tempting to blame Javid for this failure, but I suspect the real culprit lies further up the chain of command. Theresa May, whatever her other qualities, understands the middle England electorate in constituencies like her own Maidenhead. They are precisely the people who want to protect green belt at all costs, who use buy-to-let property to supplement their incomes, and who definitely don’t want their house prices to fall. This white paper does absolutely nothing to threaten their privileges.
It won’t solve the housing crisis. It won’t even come close. But it’s likely that it’s done its job nonetheless.
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