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Govt policy should not determine the undeniable need to build houses – Rudolf

by: Beth Rudolf, director of delivery at the Conveyancing Association (CA)
  • 19/06/2024
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Govt policy should not determine the undeniable need to build houses – Rudolf
It was a relatively quiet start to the general election campaign in terms of specific housing and mortgage market policy, but in recent days – and certainly with the publication of the main parties’ manifestos – we have seen a growing noise about what they have planned in this space.

Unsurprisingly, and rightly so, we are hearing a lot about the reintroduction of housebuilding targets, with ambitions ranging from 300,000 new homes per year (Conservatives), to one-and-a-half million by 2030 (Labour), and a whopping 380,000 per year from the Liberal Democrats. 

 

A glaring housing issue 

It will, of course, be lost on no one – particularly within our sector but also within the wider country – that we have got nowhere near those kinds of numbers annually over the last 20 or so years, and therefore to say it is a huge challenge to meet these new ambitions is an understatement. 

However, it’s absolutely right that we aim high because we, quite frankly, need to.

And, of course, there needs to be a significant amount of change around the building of new homes, and a reassessment of where homes can be built, whether the opposition to large developments is justified, how we can overcome planning issues, who should be first in the line, how we can improve social housing provision, and so much more.

Now, while there are clearly some differences between the major parties on the numbers, it is notable that all recognise the need to build more. In that sense, fundamentally you could argue that there is not much difference at all, and from that starting point you might well wonder whether housebuilding and achieving what is required should be a party-political issue at all? 

 

A partisan perspective 

We’ve long thought that housing as an issue, and certainly housebuilding specifically, should be taken out of any political scope, and that we would all be far better served if responsibility for it was held by a cross-party Housing Commission, rather than policy decided on the whims, or otherwise, of who happens to be in government at the time. 

The reasons for this are many.

Building homes takes a long time, and as we have seen when you fall behind the required numbers year after year – particularly with different levels of priority ascribed to it by various governments – you not only miss annual targets, but the catch-up required grows ever larger. You end up, as we have seen only too well, effectively running to stand still. 

So, essentially, we require a plan which is relevant and deliverable over many decades, not just a five-year parliamentary term. Having an independence to this, and agreement across all parties that a cross-party commission are the ones to drive activity in this area, within an agreed framework, I think would help us get to where we need to be, and to a large extent, would take away the political infighting we have on the issue. Which, as we have seen, gets us nowhere. 

It is clearly not the same but, with some exceptions, no one tends to argue much about the independence of the Bank of England in terms of allowing it to set monetary policy, interest rates, and the like.

And yet this was only taken out of politicians’ hands and established after the 1997 election.

 

Boldness needed from political parties 

It would of course be a very brave and bold move for any incoming government to carve out housing/housebuilding from the political sphere.

Then again, we’ve heard that ‘bold’ word a lot in recent weeks, and one has to surmise from certainly the last couple of decades that the status quo approach to housebuilding in particular has not delivered anywhere near the supply we require in this country in order to meet demand. 

We need to look at the housing needs of the country not in isolation but as a whole, which means driving policy that works for owner-occupation and the private rental sector (PRS), and supports habitable social housing, which has effectively been destroyed in recent times. 

From there, it is not just about providing the homes but dealing with the complexities created after the financial crisis, with onerous lease terms, managed freeholds and estate rent charges causing delays in the homemoving process and frustrations to homeowners, but a requirement when local authority does not have the resources to adopt estate roads and public open spaces.

This too needs a long-term strategic plan, because otherwise we get the likes of a watered-down Leasehold and Freehold Reform being rushed through the last day of Parliament or the Renters Reform Bill failing to make it. Perhaps a long-term plan to regulate property agents and make commonhold available to all shared amenity developments would have put the control in the hands of the community to develop the estates they wanted, supported by regulated professional property managers? 

Housing plays an important role in all our lives, and is absolutely central to our sense of self, not forgetting the considerable impact it can have on UK plc, GDP, etc, when we have a strong, fully functioning market that offers opportunities right across the piece. 

We need to be thinking about housing over a timescale of 10, 20 or 30 years, because that’s the kind of long-term foresight required in order to marry up supply with demand, to retrofit to minimise climate change and to support economic growth.

Taking it out of the political realm would, in my opinion, go a long way to making what is currently a sort of fever dream for many people an actual reality.

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