What UK housing needs now is a politician who can get a grip on the crisis, writes Paul Finch
Listening to politicians from the prime minister downwards trying to explain how they are going to dig themselves out of the housing crisis is getting increasingly surreal, not to say desperate. From Ian Duncan Smith’s wheeze of selling off housing association properties to Grant Shapps’ inexplicable housing finance nostrums, it is all too apparent that this lot don’t have the faintest idea what they are doing.
Mr Cameron has suddenly woken up to the fact that 30-somethings are still living at home because his government has utterly failed to generate sufficient housing supply. His repetition of the joys of home ownership appears to ignore everything he and his mouthpieces have been bombarding us with for years: that is to say the alternative joys of the private rented sector. Which is he backing?
It is now being realised (with an election looming) that penalising housebuilders with levies may actually be putting a brake on construction, or at the very least pushing up prices. Now there is to be a deal where these levies are stopped, in a bid to get the lower end of the market moving. We may even have government-backed mortgages if that is what Mr Shapps was actually trying to say. How very centralised!
Meanwhile the planning system is still being abused as an ‘enemy of enterprise’, even as Tory Central Office realises that it is no such thing, and that it is mortgage finance and affordability which are the real problems. But as a sop to all those free market ideologues who think neighbourly relationships would improve if everyone were allowed to build whatever they like, wherever they like, as-of-right powers to extend properties by 26 feet is being extended. What a triumph!
What Westminster needs is a politician with cojones to get a real grip on land, finance and housing supply. Such a person would need to have a track record in Westminster, have been a minister, and have a demonstrable record of dealing with property, planning and architecture.
As it happens, there is just such a person who recently announced his retirement from active politics after three decades in the Palace of Varieties. Step forward Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, and the man who has been overseeing the biggest sell-off of redundant and superfluous government property in history. His Government Property Unit, headed by architect Sherin Aminossehe, has sold nearly a billion pounds of ‘assets’ in recent years, and is a good example of how political focus and integrated civil service activity can be combined to massive effect.
If there is any criticism to be made of the programme, which includes the introduction of constant monitoring of the use to which public assets are being put (or not put), and mechanisms to alert Whitehall to waste and poor use of those assets, it is that it tends to operate in world where qualitative issues have little place.
Should Mr Maude, or someone like him, be persuaded to take on a housing brief as a non-party political position, the question of quality could easily be brought into play. As the AJ’s campaign slogan has it: ‘More Homes, Better Homes’.
And, as it happens, Francis M has good form on this. Some readers will remember the competition for the Inland Revenue office complex in Nottingham, won by Michael Hopkins & Partners. Originally this was going to be a dreary design-build exercise with scant regard either for the specifics of the site, or the architectural quality of the outcome. In stepped Maude (whose better half is an architect), scrapped the original procedure and instituted a highly successful competition.
Cometh the hour …