Yesterday’s papers had a couple of big housing stories which, between them, sketch out something of a dilemma facing the Government.
First we have Labour’s plans to make a big push on social housing, centred on a plan to build a million new social housing units in ten years and redefine ‘affordable housing’ as what the Guardian calls “a measure linked to people’s incomes”.
Then we have a big Times exposé on Bovis, a big housebuilder which the paper claims is “misleading buyers and “deliberately” delaying essential repairs to poorly built homes”. It adds:
“Bovis Homes, which builds about 3,500 properties a year, has also been accused of failing adequately to repair defects and engaging in “underhand behaviour” to limit bad publicity.”
For all that the Times’ second piece opens with “buying a newly built home is supposed to offer the assurance of a trouble-free property”, Kirsty Allsop is quoted in the story as warning any buyer away from new-build homes. That tallies with what I’ve heard from talking to family and friends in the property business. Bovis’ transgressions may be especially egregious, if the Times reports are accurate, but the problem isn’t confined to one builder.
These stories illustrate the twin pressures facing Sajid Javid as he tries to come up with a Conservative housing offer.
Not only does he need to find the willpower in the Party to unleash a major housebuilding programme before Labour completely steals the march on the issue, but he needs to ensure that this initiative doesn’t become a byword for contractor profiteering and shoddy workmanship the way the Macmillan boom of the 1960s gifted us badly-planned estates and the horrors of tower blocks.
At the same time, he can’t fall into the trap of passing good-headline measures mandating wonderful standards if the net result is not enough homes getting built and those that do get built being too expensive. Whilst the Adam Smith Institute’s ‘modern slums‘ idea has a typically provocative title, it makes a good point about how individually reasonable-sounding requirements can very easily prevent the market catering to different tastes, expectations, and budgets.
One possible compromise which suggests itself is to crack down hard on mis-selling and cowboy workmanship from builders whilst easing up on strict requirements on things such as room sizes, building height, density, and so forth. The Government could also work with groups like Create Streets to shift planning laws towards favouring more popular, liveable styles of neighbourhood and even look at policies to support things like self-build.
Policies such as those, which emphasise freedom whilst protecting buyers, could form the core of a coherent, Conservative housing offer. Labour’s latest pitch shows how badly the Party needs one.