City Hall

Solving the UK housing crisis

Housing has risen to the very top of the political agenda, or so we are told. Yet the signals sent by the recent reshuffle show it is still treated with little respect at the most senior levels of government. There has been great disquiet over the sacking of Mark Prisk, who was widely thought of as thoroughly on top of the subject.

His departure really unsettled the industry, despite the implied reassurance that the Treasury has now taken the housing agenda so there is no need for a Secretary of State. Is it enough that housing is now in the hands of Whitehall’s most powerful department? I don’t think so because I believe the housing crisis is not just about money. In addition to the frequently rehearsed obstacles - lack of investment, shortage of borrowing, land supply, inadequate infrastructure, laborious planning, convoluted standards, and so on – there is another, even bigger problem: The public remains to be convinced about the need for housebuilding.

We need to build a vision that transforms the view of those who see homebuilding as a rapacious evil that detracts from people’s lives into a public good that they can support. When NIMBY voters don’t even want pro-housing politicians in their own back yard you have an obvious democratic deficit.

I have come to the conclusion that we need front line politicians at every level - national, regional and local – prepared to argue for the benefits of more and better homes wherever they are needed. Take London, where the average earner can no longer afford the averagely priced home and typical purchasers will soon be in their forties before they will have saved enough to become first time buyers. Even in London, where the mayor has acquired sweeping powers over housing, planning, infrastructure and land, Paul Finch, a notable commentator, is compelled to ask, “….despite all Boris’ powers, where’s the housing?”

We need a tub-thumping, relentless soap box appeal to the better nature of voters, urging them to welcome in their midst new neighbours in new homes. Is that what we are going to get from the Treasury? I don’t think so.  Neither have we heard it from Kris Hopkins nor Emma Reynolds, so far at least. Boris Johnson has easily enough stock with the voters of London to get away with it. I wonder if Tessa Jowell or Eddie Izard might have enough chutzpah? 

Whilst we persist with this lacuna we can continue to expect the depressingly counter-productive phenomenon of middle class activists getting up petitions at planning committees to oppose the provision of new homes on brown field sites because they don’t want change. We should be able to refer such opponents of homebuilding to words of inspiring leadership from political proponents of city building that should by rights be ringing in their ears.

All of which prompts the question – what does this new breed of housing-friendly politician look like? I’ll set out those ideas in my next blog.

Ben Derbyshire is managing partner of HTA Design

This column first appeared on Building.co.uk


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