Danny Kruger is MP for Devizes.
At the last election, the Conservative Party Manifesto promised to end rough sleeping, to build more homes and to build better homes. These remain the right aims for our country, even though the challenge in achieving them is now even greater.
The Prime Minister is right not to give up on our ambitions. We must “build, build, build.” But build what? The answer is very simple. Alongside the economic and social infrastructure the country needs, the gGvernment needs to make a major new investment in building genuinely affordable social homes – not least for those millions of families living in poor private rented housing or temporary accommodation. Sitting out the lockdown in a cottage in Wiltshire, as I did, was one thing. Doing it in an overcrowded flat in White City, where I used to live, is another.
Direct investment in a new generation of high quality, carbon-neutral, social homes would protect the skilled jobs in the construction trade that are now at acute risk. We should prioritise this over protecting the big housebuilders whose business model depends on winding down output when prices are low. Social housing faces no such risk in demand terms. Well over a million people are waiting for a social home. Every home we built would be snapped up.
In 2008, the major developers received financial help from the Government, and they are asking for this again. Persimmons made over a billion in pre-tax profit last year. Taylor Wimpey limped in with just over £800 million. The fact that the big developers, with their profits, huge dividends, plenty of cash, and their land banks, feel the need to turn to Government at the first sign of a market downturn suggests there is a problem with house building that needs some new thinking.
We need to think about the right rules for planning. It is undoubtedly the case that planning reform could free up more land for building in ways that don’t harm communities or the environment. And while we have built many more homes in recent years, it is an inescapable fact that some of these – particularly those in converted office blocks – haven’t been to the standard we would want. But we must not let the vexed issue of planning reform get in the way of building the social homes we need.
Most fundamentally, we don’t want house building dominated by ten enormous companies and one underwhelming product: your standard, small, identikit, uninspiring newbuild. We want innovation, a consciousness of beauty, and multiple products for buyers to choose between.
A diversity of suppliers will create resilience in the housebuilding industry, particularly when we have to weather another economic storm. As the Letwin Review pointed, supplier diversity leads to faster build-out rates.
Most of all, we need local involvement in planning and building. Community Land Trusts – like the excellent Seend CLT in my constituency – are the best way to get public support for development. CLTs and custom builders are vital source of contracts for local SME builders and many are developing on sites mainstream developers won’t go near. My party committed in its manifesto to more support for community led housing. I hope that at the autumn Budget, I hope we’ll see a renewal of the Community Housing Fund to help kickstart the engine of local growth.