Eighteen months ago the then new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, told the country that Housing would be his number one priority. The solution to Britain’s housing crisis would be a new building programme
and to punctuate his point the PM decreed that the Housing Minister would, from now on, have a seat around the Cabinet table.
Ignored was the fact that Brown had been Chancellor for a 10 year period during which far fewer homes had been built than under Thatcher or Major; now things would really begin to change – Gordon, it was
said, was the change!
Attention grabbing headlines rammed home the message, ‘3 Million Homes By 2020’ declares new PM.
The media were impressed and Government ministers were soon trotting out the 3 million target at every opportunity. This policy was soon joined by 10 new so called eco-towns and jointly these twin policies
quickly became the housing panacea, all of which we were told would be delivered centrally from Whitehall.
But wind forward three Housing ministers later, what has the reality been?
Even before the property market crashed, new house building never did
pick up. Those bold headlines about 3m new homes became ever more
vacant as the number of housing starts actually began to decline and
then seize up entirely. The eco-town policy has collapsed under
pressure from the Government’s very own eco-advisors. And I now stand
across the Despatch Box from the third Housing Minister for 2008
So what went wrong?
I think the reality is that it’s no longer possible to make grand
pronouncements from Whitehall and then simply expect change to happen
on the ground. Since Governments don’t actually build houses directly
anymore and this administration has systematically reduced the amount
of social housing grant, just declaring a big housing goal is very
unlikely to change anything at all. And of course, it didn’t.
But not only did the Government fail to appreciate these simple truths,
it has also exacerbated the problem by thinking that its own housing
policy failures were actually the fault of someone else.
Specifically ministers wrongly believed that it was the intransience of
local communities that was preventing homes being built and so it set
about passing legislation to amass substantial powers with a new
body called the Homes and Communities Agency.
The HCA, which takes over all things Housing from December, will be a
mega-quango sucking in bodies like the Housing Corporation, English
Partnerships, the New Towns Commission (already abolished in previous
legislation but curiously still occupying offices and employing staff)
and much else in its wake. With awesome new powers to compulsorily
purchase land, to become the planning authority, the builder and even
the property landlord, the latest Housing Bill vests enormous influence
in the hands of the Chief Executive and Secretary of State.
And yet I predict that none of this will resolve the nation’s housing
crisis, because the problem isn’t so much how to comprehensively
trample over the concerns of local communities; but instead how best
to work with them to deliver the housing required on the ground.
Meanwhile the foundations of this government’s housing policy; to build
more homes and develop new eco-towns lie in tatters because they’ve
believed that they could sit in Whitehall and second guess
solutions on the ground. We know that it is our challenge to come up with a better approach.
So over the coming weeks and months we’ll be outlining our alternative
solutions. Rather than relying on big headline-grabbing government
diktats; we will instead promise to work with local communities to
develop in a way that helps people achieve their aspirations of decent
housing, without necessarily trampling over their practical desire to
own the future of their own communities.
We will turn the system on its head by removing top-down targets and
replacing them with incentive-based rewards for sensible development.
We will start with the basic understanding that local people aren’t the problem, but an essential driver in housing solutions.
Increasing house-building back to the levels during the last
Conservative Government won’t be easy, but it is clear that this Labour
Government has got things horribly wrong. We will get it right by
removing heavy-handed control from Whitehall and instead empowering and
rewarding people and their communities and in doing so we will build
more houses than this Government and its arbitrary targets could
ever have achieved.