I keep being told “The housing market is broken”. It strikes me that this is rather like the punter who goes into the bookies, puts £100 into the fixed odds betting machine and then approaches the counter to complain that the machine is broken, because he hasn’t won.
The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has once again declared that “the housing market is broken” and launched an assault on local authorities, threatening to take their planning powers away. That’s rather like saying to your child, if you don’t brush your teeth, I’ll confiscate your toothpaste and toothbrush. This parent child relationship between central and local government is a well-worn and unproductive pattern of behaviour. Many in local government even say it is a relationship that is broken.
My wife works in local government and has told me recently that her authority has received email advice from Central Government reminding them of the risk to street homeless people from the recent run of freezing weather. The recent death of a street homeless man, on the doorstep of the Palace of Westminster, has clearly woken up the politicians to the plight of the street homeless. But it’s what local government faces on a daily basis.
Whilst the picture is more complicated than I am about to portray, there is a connection between people sleeping on the streets and houses not being built. I have met the Secretary of State, Sajid Javed a number of times recently (he invited me to serve on his Grenfell task force). For those of you, who have not met him, I’ve found him to be a decent guy, highly intelligent and strongly committed to serve his brief. His drive on the Grenfell recovery has been substantial.
I have not asked him, but I guess he knows that local authorities don’t build many houses any more – the Government’s financial rules don’t allow them. I guess he also knows that planning powers are only one part of the picture to house building. He probably knows that if he took them away, like taking away a child’s toothbrush, it is unlikely to result in cleaner teeth. He is not as old as me and so may not remember that the greatest period of housing growth in the UK was in the post war era, when the then Conservative Government oversaw the building of 250k homes a year rising to 400k in the 1960s. Many by local authorities.
I see the frustration of local authorities, who want to build but are constrained. And many believe that lifting the borrowing cap to enable local authority house building might start to help repair the broken relationship between central and local government and re-balance the odds on the housing betting machine. It is complex. There is no silver bullet. The housing market isn’t broken – it does what it is designed to do.
Let’s design something different that we know has worked.
Chris Wood is a Group Director at Altair
Contact Chris on 0207 934 0175 or firstname.lastname@example.org