Politicians are busy foisting their half-baked #BuildBeautiful ideas on us, but we’d be better off if they created a national housing delivery body, writes Paul Finch
The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, to be chaired by Roger Scruton, is the latest half-baked idea from Conservative politicians desperate to prove they are ‘doing something’ about the housing shortage. Flying a flag for ‘beauty’ (for which read Scruton’s beloved ‘Classicism’) has little chance of changing much.
Government doesn’t really care about building homes, whatever the latest nine-day-wonder housing minister says. We can make this assumption because there is no statutory requirement for any national body to actually build homes. There are agencies that may have such duties – for example development corporations – but of course their targets are not the same thing as delivery. Does anyone think, if targets were not met, that anyone would be punished?
The context for our lack of housing delivery is the billions spent on housing benefit. There is a statutory duty to house but not to build. You can couple that with the bizarre belief that, if they didn’t have to deal with pesky planning or building regulations, private housebuilders would be rushing to build a social housing programme. Left to themselves, they wouldn’t produce any ‘affordable’ homes, let alone social units – for understandable business reasons.
Government dogma – that everything will be OK if you leave it to the market, and if that doesn’t work then you just let local authorities borrow loads of money to fill the gap – is farcical. Half of our local authorities cannot in fact borrow money to build – because they haven’t built the minimum number of homes (200) required before the appropriate borrowing account can be opened. You couldn’t make it up.
Sadly, the various bodies that governments of all persuasions have placed in charge of housing – the Housing Corporation, the Homes & Communities Agency and, most recently, Homes England – have rarely if ever directly built anything, preferring to concentrate on land assembly and trading; dishing out grants and telling us all what a great job they are doing. If they are so great, why are we in our current mess?
In reality our current condition cannot be blamed on the planning system as such (it is the same one we had when we were building a sufficiency), nor on building or fire regulations, nor on non-existent land-hoarding by volume housebuilders. As the shrewd property and construction journalist Peter Bill has recently shown, the biggest housebuilders have increased output considerably in recent years. It has made no difference to the net shortage.
Unless you have a public-sector-led housing programme, you will never hit the necessary targets
Let’s face it, unless you have a public-sector-led housing procurement programme, you will never hit the necessary targets, particularly in London. Conservative governments and local authorities never had a problem with this until quite recently. Their reluctance to embrace public-sector housing occurred at precisely the time when, for reasons including inward migration, demand was inexorably rising. We should have made it illegal for local authorities not to build.
Housing secretary James Brokenshire (appropriate name) would have done better to create a body whose statutory duty was to build homes. It could be based on the Olympic Delivery Authority, which created the impressive Olympic Village in Stratford where it owned land and had planning powers and an appropriate budget.
Why can’t we have a Housing Delivery Authority, chaired by a heavyweight who understands construction delivery, in which public land could be vested, and which would be measured (and rewarded) not for speeches or planning permissions, but for completions?
The authority could adopt the AJ’s unbeatable campaign slogan ‘More homes, better homes’. This has nothing to do with the aesthetic preferences of people who have never built anything.