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Housing delivery is too important to leave to the politicians

Paul Finch
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The government displays no understanding of how the housing sector works; it needs to create a Housing Delivery Authority with power and expertise, says Paul Finch

I set off for MIPIM with two sounds ringing in my ears. The first was a series of patronising messages about how men should behave this week, my response to which was: take a jump. If I were to dispense ‘advice’ to women on how to behave at MIPIM in similar tones, I would rightly be condemned for being insulting. What is sauce for the goose…

Far more important was the torrent of reaction to the government’s new housing strategy, and its changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, supposedly crucial to the strategy’s success. Despite some surface attractions, the big initiative is depressingly familiar, has virtually no new ideas, and what is more no genuine understanding of how housing works, in either private or public sectors.

When I read that we would provide a multiplicity of homes by using the empty space above shops, my mind went back to the mid-1970s when this proposal was first made. As ever, the political class has failed to do anything to make it happen, not that it would make a huge difference, and there is no reason to think that this will change any time soon.

The big initiative has virtually no new ideas, nor any genuine understanding of how housing works

It was also extremely disappointing that the prime minister has pledged to lead the drive to building a sufficiency of homes. What happens when she has quit the scene, which is likely to be in the next three years? And doesn’t she have even bigger challenges on her plate currently? It is all reminiscent of other politicians, including Charlie Falconer and John Prescott, claiming that they have answers and they will make it all happened. Highly aspirational, but when it came to it massively short on delivery.

Ducking almost any discussion about who builds net additional homes has been the hallmark of successive governments (and London mayors). I contrast this with the recent announcement that Westminster is going to create something like the Olympic Delivery Authority to oversee the multibillion-pound retrofit of the Palace of Westminster because it is beyond the scope of the committee of MPs that deals with these matters.

This sensible decision is acknowledgement of the success of the ODA in delivering a huge programme under a tight timetable, including the Olympic village. How was it able to do this? First, a formidable top team of chairman and chief exec, John Armitt and David Higgins, who know exactly how things get done. Second, an experienced and committed management team, incentivised to ensure things happened when they should. Third, independent constructive design review and advice from semi-permanent panels.

That was the people stuff. Add to that the following: the ODA owned or controlled land. It had planning powers. It had compulsory purchase powers. It had a direct line to both the mayor of London and the relevant secretary of state. It had a highly defined purpose which avoided distractions.

Just suppose that Theresa May, instead of pretending she can run housing herself, appointed an Armitt/Higgins team and created a Housing Delivery Authority. Suppose she vested all required public land in the HDA. Suppose she gave the HDA planning and compulsory purchase powers. Suppose you appointed a crack executive team heavily incentivised to produce required housing numbers over a decade (actual homes built, not speeches about how everything is under control).

And suppose that a huge panel of capable architects was assembled, based on demonstrable skill, to design and manage projects ranging from 10 to 1,000 units. The proviso being that these homes will not be delivered by housebuilders, who will be going about their business in the normal way, but by the rest of the construction sector.

In short, a public sector-led initiative, with proper design standards, that will as ever be built out by the private sector. If it is good enough for the Olympics and the Palace of Westminster, why can’t we use the formula for housing?

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