Elections are not necessarily about the subjects we would choose, writes Paul Finch
The response of the political parties to the housing shortage has been profuse in all manifestos, with various ideas plucked from the shelf and given a dusting-down. The most radical is Labour’s suggestion that a ministry of housing should be reconstituted and that a cabinet minister should once again take responsibility for this critical part of our national life.
Nothing wrong with this, but elections are rarely about single issues; when they are it is a whopping elephant in the room, in this case B****t. Given our circumstances, it is hard to see that fundamental question not being the key to the result. Hence the Lib Dem proposal for a second referendum, after negotiations with the EU are concluded. But do you think they would be the best people to be negotiating our corner over the next two years?
Whatever the outcome, a new government need not necessarily reject ideas promoted by others during the campaign, so it may be that the notion of a housing ministry will get some air time.
There is an increasing realisation that public bodies need to take more responsibility for delivering housing where it is required
As this column has noted before, we have a very curious attitude to house-building in respect of Whitehall structures. Is housing about design, planning or construction? The answer is all three, but this means that at least two departments (Communities & Local Government and Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) have some sway over housing, because although the housing minister works out of Communities, responsibility for construction lies with Business, though it no longer boasts a construction ‘czar’.
Look across Whitehall and you notice how many departments have a large building estate, and are responsible for design and construction (education, health, defence, transport, foreign affairs). Despite Terry Farrell’s best efforts to get a government chief architect appointed, to give broad-brush advice to government on these matters, it has yet to happen. Scrapping Cabe means that ministers have no one to turn to for disinterested advice on built environment matters. To say policy is uncoordinated is putting it mildly.
Given that construction accounts for at least 10 per cent of UK GDP, it is odd that it does not have a heavy-hitter at cabinet level responsible for pushing its cause. Moreover, it is no longer a question of blindly supporting anything the industry, especially the house-building industry, has to say. There is an increasing realisation across the board that public bodies need to take more responsibility for getting housing delivered where it is required; in short treating it like the infrastructure it is.
Conservative support for huge public spending on devolved agencies, such as the Midlands Engine and the Northern Powerhouse, combined with its commitment to infrastructure projects such as HS2, indicates that there is some bipartisan agreement about what needs to be done, particularly striking if you compare it with contradictory party policies on almost everything else.
The RIBA’s response to Theresa May’s manifesto was polite because the manifesto is polite about architects and architecture, though I fear it is largely lip-service. The most significant recent political change in respect of the mother of the arts was switching it from Culture to Communities, where it sits stranded as a sub-set of planning. The institute was slightly warmer about Labour’s over-long list of motherhood-and-apple-pie promises. I enjoyed the Lib Dem idea that ‘ensuring full transparency for viability assessments’ might be an election-winner.
Jane Duncan has rightly condemned the Tory plan to tax employers of non-EU architects. Who invents these nutty policies? The EU promotes an unpleasant discriminatory attitude towards citizens from the rest of the world. Now May is replicating that attitude, instead of being truly internationalist. Sad.