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The housing crisis will persist regardless of political leadership

Simon Gerrard
January 10, 2024

As we approach the end of the year and look ahead to 2024, the political landscape will be heating up as we fully enter the run up to the next general election. Of all the core issues that often take centre stage in election campaigning, the one I am least optimistic about is housing.

Housing and development have been contentious issues throughout the past year and well before, and the spotlight cast on the current government’s failures to address the housing crisis will only become brighter as we enter election season. However, no matter who is in charge by this time next year, I see little hope that progress will be made.

The King’s Speech in November delivered the final nail in the coffin for any aspiration that the housing crisis would ease at all before the next general election. Disappointingly, despite the urgent need to provide new homes for this country, the King’s Speech was only notable for its lack of attention given to housebuilding. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that it follows the tune of the party conferences earlier in the year, where both the Conservatives and Labour failed to offer positive news or pragmatic announcements on how they would address the housing crisis. It is a fitting end to a season marked by a lack of political ambition and leadership with regards to fixing our housing crisis.

Of all the political events in recent months, however, it is the most recent cabinet reshuffle that best demonstrates why there has been such little progress on housing. Lee Rowley was re-appointed as the latest housing minister - the sixteenth change in the role in the last thirteen years and the seventh in the last two. It comes as no surprise that absolutely no progress has been made on fixing our planning system, given that no minister seems to be able to stay in post for the length of time it takes for a planning application to go through our system.

The speed of turnover for housing ministers will leave you dizzy, and it offers no promise for serious reform or policymaking to encourage development. How can anyone be expected to offer solutions to the core problems holding back housing development when they are given no time, and often, it would seem, have no intention to even understand these problems. It is akin to somebody watching an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and then showing up for a shift at A&E. Ultimately, the lack of time afforded to ministers appointed to the housing brief is symptomatic of a wider issue; the total lack of attention the housing crisis is being given by the government.

The speed of turnover for housing ministers will leave you dizzy, and it offers no promise for serious reform or policymaking to encourage development Quote

When it comes to housing, the Conservative Party’s conference slogan “Long-Term Decisions for a Brighter Future” could not be further from the truth. The importance of solving the housing crisis seems to have been swept under the carpet by virtually everyone who attended the Conservative party conference this year.

The only voice to buck the trend was Liz Truss’, as she called to set ambitious housebuilding targets of 500,000 new homes a year. However, this regrettably only highlights that the government had previously set a lower target of 300,000, and when this proved too difficult, the government totally backtracked on this target, labelling it as ‘advisory’ and allowing local councils to fall short if they can demonstrate that meeting it would significantly change the character of the area.

On the other hand, whilst the Labour party were more vocal on the issue at their conference, with Kier Starmer pledging to transform the ‘restrictive’ planning system and ‘fight the blockers’, we were again left starving for detail on how exactly the hopeful leader of the country actually intends to accomplish this.

Whilst refreshing to hear how much housebuilding Labour are intending to do, I fear that this rhetoric is little more than a pipe dream, and that the party is merely rolling out sound bites on housing policy in pursuit of election victory.

For all Starmer’s talk of fighting the blockers and Truss’ call to set ambitious housing targets, we have heard little about how either party will confront one of the key blockages: local councils and planning inspectorates who will prevent development of new homes at every possible step.

Local councils have been empowered to do so by a ruling from the High Court giving them apparent carte blanche to refuse even permitted development right applications – which in theory should allow developers to add two extra floors to blocks of flats, provided an extensive list of criteria has been met – on the totally subjective grounds of whether the development ‘fits in’ with the street scene.

As a result, we have a housing market with demand that hugely outstrips supply. I would estimate that for every house on the market, there are five people looking to buy. Whilst it’s well documented that housing prices have recently been on a downward trend due to a harsh economic climate and high interest rates, I would anticipate that prices will begin to rise sharply again once rates and the economy have fully stabilised.

Here again, neither party has given enough attention or pragmatic thinking to how to support people in buying a home. The Help to Buy scheme, which the current government also scrapped earlier this year, could actually have been a sensible idea, and it displayed promise in providing some stability to house prices that have skyrocketed beyond the budgets of the vast majority of the country.

If the government were serious about supporting people towards owning property, Help to Buy could be reintroduced with some tweaks to help the growing number of people who need support, such as expanding the scheme to include older stock rather than exclusively applying to new builds. This would increase the pool of homes available for first time buyers through the scheme, as well as helping second steppers to sell their homes and move up the property ladder.

However, practical and clever policymaking to help people buy homes must be supported by reform to our planning system. We have a government and a proposed government that have both, time and time again, promised a mission statement of making homes more affordable. Without building new homes, this will quite simply never happen.

Overall, the current government has displayed a total lack of ability to lead from the front on housing, and its willingness to bend over backwards to accommodate the wishes of NIMBY back benchers and anti-development councils has sent a strong message that this government would rather do what is popular than what is right.

The picture that Labour is painting offers encouragement that a change in government would fix these issues. However, given that many of the worst councils with regards to dealing with planning applications efficiently or, more importantly, approving them, are Labour councils, this is clearly unlikely to be the case unless there is a material change in how the planning system works.

I await with bated breath, and little hope, that either party will offer a fix to our housing crisis any time soon.

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Simon Gerrard is the Managing Director of Martyn Gerrard Estate Agents.

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