by Olivia Hanks
“Walk down your local high street today and there’s one sight you’re almost certain to see. Young people, faces pressed against the estate agent’s window, trying and failing to find a home they can afford.” Sajid Javid’s words, in his speech launching the government’s latest white paper on housing, were rather unfortunate. The sight we’ve all been seeing on high streets this winter is the clusters of sleeping bags in doorways, the faces those of people failed so badly by society that they no longer have anywhere to live at all. This lack of understanding of what the housing crisis really is – not just thwarted aspirations of ownership, but squalor, overcrowding, evictions – sets the tone for this misfiring, misleading, self-contradicting paper.
Homeless people do get a few mentions in the white paper. It acknowledges that homelessness is rising and that losing a private sector tenancy is the main cause of homelessness. There are five mentions of “preventing homelessness” before we get to any sort of policy detail – but its arrival is something of an anticlimax. It refers to the Homelessness Reduction Bill currently going through Parliament – a piece of legislation which places a greater duty on local authorities to prevent homelessness, thus conveniently absolving the government of responsibility for the crisis it has caused. The problem is that local authorities don’t have any money, because the government has cut off their sources of funding. Dawn Foster in the Guardian aptly compared it to “legally mandating someone to build you a shed after taking away their toolbox, all the wood they’d stockpiled, and then for good measure, burning down any nearby trees.”
Unfortunately, saying housing policy “requires a radical re-think” isn’t the same as actually doing any of that thinking.
The rhetoric of social justice with at best no policy behind it, and at worst, policies that achieve the opposite of what is proclaimed, is a recurring feature in the housing paper and in this government’s actions more generally. The paper declares that the market is “broken”, and talks about “planning for the right homes in the right places” as well as more housebuilding. Unfortunately, saying housing policy “requires a radical re-think” isn’t the same as actually doing any of that thinking. Any attempt at real solutions will quickly run up against the holy trinity of Tory principles on housing: prices must keep rising, council housing is an abomination, and planning is just ‘red tape’.
This is why the Tories can’t or won’t sort out our housing problems. They are so ideologically bound to the view that the ‘free market’ can solve everything that they can blather on for 100 pages about building homes faster while ignoring the blindingly obvious: developers will never build enough homes while it is more profitable to build fewer and keep prices high, and they will not build small flats on urban brownfield sites (i.e. the kind of housing we need) when they can make more money from covering fields with ‘executive homes’.
developers will never build enough homes while it is more profitable to build fewer and keep prices high
This isn’t really the developers’ fault – it’s the fault of an economic system that sees maximum profit as the only goal of business, coupled with a political system that expects unregulated business to solve our social problems.
The same ideological blinkers mean the government continues to talk about local authorities as obstinate pen-pushers getting in the way of progress. Many authorities would like nothing more than to start building council housing again, but the policies of successive governments have made this all but impossible. (In a competitive field, the award for ‘worst housing policy’ probably goes to the 2016 Housing and Planning Act’s ‘high-value voids determination’, which will see the Treasury demand millions of pounds from councils – to be raised through selling their most valuable council houses – to compensate housing associations for the homes they have been forced to sell at a discount under Right to Buy. No, it doesn’t make any more sense if you read it again.)
So, instead of enabling councils to start building again, the government punishes them for not delivering enough of the homes they have no power to provide. Councils will be required to produce a local plan allocating land for development (this was previously strongly encouraged but not compulsory); but if they don’t meet housing delivery targets set by the government, the plan will be thrown out of the window and development will be permitted almost anywhere. This shows that the Conservative view of planning is still as a sop to appease nimbys, rather than a tool for creating healthy and sustainable places.
The white paper notes that under-resourced planning departments can be a barrier to development – doubtless true, although I’d argue that they are a greater barrier to opposing inappropriate applications. It promises to “take steps to secure the financial sustainability of planning departments”, despite coming from a party that has spent the last six years recklessly slashing council budgets. It will be interesting to see what these steps entail: the government’s obsession with ‘business-led’ (i.e. unelected) decision-making in the form of Local Enterprise Partnerships, and its promise of planning powers for new mayors, might lead us to suspect that control over planning will soon be removed from councils altogether.
Alternatively, it might be that this promise and all the others are just empty words, and that neither Javid nor anyone else really knows what they mean. Certainly, a paper which declares that housing needs to be made more affordable, then reiterates support for Help to Buy, an ill-conceived policy that is pushing up prices, should be viewed sceptically at best.
Theresa May’s first months in Downing Street have been characterised by insincere platitudes (the ‘jams’, the ‘Britain that works for everyone’) coupled with policies of the extreme right and an authoritarian approach to governing. There is no reason to assume that the government’s policy on housing will depart from this path. Those who had been tantalised by the rumours that these new plans would offer real help to renters will be disappointed. Even the widely trailed proposal on longer-term tenancies is as vague as it can possibly be – something to be ‘promoted’, rather than legislated for. Beneath the thin veneer of concern for ‘everyone’, we know whose side the Tories are on.
Header image: Iffley Open House