Sajid Javid wanted to be known as the Housing Secretary. The title of his department was changed to reflect this demand by him and by others. Now James Brokenshire likes to be known as the Communities Secretary. What is going on at CLG, sorry, HCLG?
The answer is to be found amidst the welter of housing announcements due this month from the department; housebuilding rates that are still below the 2008 pre-crash peak; the lowest home ownership rate in 30 years; the Government’s stated aim of building 300,000 houses a year, a rate unknown since the days of Harold Macmillan, and a welter of housing initiatives from Conservative think-tanks and MPs, including Onward, Policy Exchange and Nick Boles.
Before Westminster’s summer is out, Brokenshire is due to produce the latest iteration of planning policy, his department will produce its rough sleeper strategy, and Oliver Letwin will prepare for the second part of his probe into build-out rates. Today, he has quielty announced a social housing investment boost.
Meanwhile, Will Tanner set out Onward’s three-part housing plan on this site yesterday: a local government-led planning system, a reduction of tax reliefs for new buy-to-let landlords and a rejigged Help to Buy scheme. Dean Godson of Policy Exchange wants a building stress on beauty: “given the choice people prefer traditional designs – from Georgian terraces and Edwardian mansion-blocks, to tree-lined streets”. In his new book, Boles has advocated greater use of compulsory purchase orders, a requirement on builders to build on schedule (or lose their right to build to others who will do so), and a Grenfell Housing Commission to build half a million new homes over the next ten years.
What much of this has in common is finding more land – which brings us back to Brokenshire’s prefered title. At first glance, it could be read as a retreat from that housing target. But probe more deeply, and you find that it is his way of trying to hit it.
The Communities Secretary, as we will call him, knows full well that while housebuilding rates are indeed below their pre-Great Recession levels, they have risen in recent years. Some 184,000 were completed in 2016-17 and about 163,000 started. Conservative councils have more than played their part in raising the totals, and Tory MPs have recognised that the Party’s electoral future is inextricably linked to more homes for younger people.
But there is a limit to what many Conservative councillors will take without protests, and most Tory MPs would resist a radical liberalisation of the planning framework: Bob Seely spoke for them in a recent ConservativeHome piece. It goes almost without saying that they also want a proper post-Brexit immigration policy in place, since migration has been a contributor to the rise in house prices: Dominic Raab, the Minister for Housing, has published figures to back up his claim that it has pushed them up by 20 per cent over 25 years.
If he is right, that leaves other factors responsible for the remaining 80 per cent. Policy Exchange has published proposals for building 300,000 homes on brownfield sites in London. But the hard truth for Tory councils is that it will be impossible for the Government to hit its target without finding more greenfield spaces. One of the main constraints on housebuilding has been the framework in place ever since the post-war Labour Government’s Housing and Planning Act. The Coalition nibbled away at the edges by concentrating building in towns and villages that have already been developed. Our columnist Alex Morton has written on this site that the most recent planning framework, published in March, actually cut the Government’s target from 300,000 to 200,000.
At any rate, Brokenshire believes that it will be impossible to meet the nation’s housing need without ganing buy-in from local people. Hence his stress on the word “communities” in his title, rather than “housing”. For him, consent is the key that will open the door to new homes. Both HCLG and Downing Street are enthusiastic about Policy Exchange’s stress on beauty. Godson summed his case up as follows: “Put simply, people both value beauty and they know we need to build more homes. The solution is to recognise the importance of both feelings.” The Communities Secretary wants to foster a greater sense of local ownership – not just home ownership itself, but a wider pride in local places. There is an active interest in the department in longer tenure for those who rent.
All this poses some questions.
The first is how to build those beautiful homes. Greater attention to design codes is all very well. None the less, there is a powerful argument to the effect that beauty needs space: the less of it there is, the more box-like homes will be. A certain amount of building can take place upwards in cities, as Tanner suggested in his ConservativeHome piece yesterday. But, as mentioned earlier in this article, Brokenshire may run up against the resistance of councils to finding more elsewhere. Onward’s solution seems to be new Garden Towns or Cities – one also advanced in our own ConservativeHome Manifesto five years ago. Giving local authorities a bigger say in their construction might well be popular, but finding sites for new towns would not be at all easy (which isn’t to say it shouldn’t be done). And a Boles-like use of compulsory purchase would kick against Brokenshire’s emollient way of doing politics.
A second is where a stress on ownership would leave private landlords. The Onward proposals were drawn up by Neil O’Brien, now MP for Market Harborough, formerly a special adviser to George Osborne. They are faithful to the approach and policies of the former Chancellor. Osborne curbed tax relief for buy-to-let landlords on mortgage interest payments. Onward wants a further reduction on reliefs plus controls on foreign owners of property for investment. Longer tenure would imply new Government intervention in renting arrangements. That might cause landlords to withdraw properties from the market altogether.
A third is about any new help-to-buy scheme. Elizabeth Truss is out and about this morning making the case for public spending control. In the wake of the Government’s NHS 70th anniversary cash bung announcement, she must fend off pressure from other spending departments – of which Gavin Williamson’s campaign for more defence money is the most prominent. Is the Treasury really up for a new large-scale demand-side intervention? And should the taxpayer be subsidising homes in the first place?
There is a potential clash between Brokenshire’s irenic style, and wish to take people with him, and the radicalism of some of the think-tank proposals. We will see how this tension works out. But for moment, at least for the Communities Secretary, it’s back to the future.