The annual tour of the party conference housing fringe events is over for another year.
Annual leave meant only the Conservatives this year. The mood was downbeat, as expected. Housing seemed to have a higher priority than ever before, with a common view that unless the Tories can achieve success in addressing the housing crisis they are unlikely to win the 2022 election.
The higher priority for housing invited more (often less informed) views into the discussion. And it appeared very few people could actually define what would success look like, in 2022? Everyone agreed about the need to build more homes and capture more younger voters, BUT would it be via?
a. Home ownership levels continuing to fall? or,
b. Home ownership stabilising at the current c60%? or,
c. Home ownership starting to start rising again?
No fringe panellist or expert appeared willing or able to give an answer to the above. The announcement on Help to Buy was obviously a major piece of good news for further driving up private sector supply and there were also positive announcements on Council housing. But it seemed difficult to see where the priority lies aside from the obvious desire to build more homes of whatever tenure, social rented, private rented or owner occupation.
This need to build more homes of all tenures was shared by everyone and both Sajid Javid and Alok Sharma both spoke strongly and well on the importance of more supply.
Many seemed vexed by the tension between wanting to support home ownership but recognising that in some Tory heartland areas rented housing is sometimes the only viable option for low and middle income younger households who don’t benefit from financial assistance. It seemed clear that helping the huge amount of people who face difficulties in securing access to a good stable home appeared more important than protecting house prices.
Many spoke about the geography of the problem. Several asserted that the social problems caused by high housing prices are limited to London and parts of the South East and that in most other areas the market is functioning reasonably well.
The Help to Buy (HTB) announcement showed that the commitment to building more homes for sale remains. In relation to H2B there seemed little consensus in the fringe events. Some were opposed due to the perceived inflationary effects. Others were supportive, citing the 130,000 FTBs who have been helped so far and the 135,000 more households who will benefit in the future. In perhaps the biggest housing fringe at the conference, David Thomas spoke strongly on the value and importance of Help to Buy if recent private sector volume increases are to continue
It was perhaps surprising that nobody mentioned the independent evaluation of Help to Buy for the Government, which showed that HTB has driven 43% increase in additional housing supply that would not have happened otherwise. Similarly nobody considered what the housing supply (and price) levels would be now if HTB had never been introduced. Some felt that more HTB was akin to putting petrol onto a demand fire, whilst others felt that taking it away would be be like pouring water on a supply fire which has seen output rise to 200,000 per annum.
Green Belt was never far from the surface and the perception was that most were willing to see proportionate releases from Green Belt, especially if linked to Green Belt extensions. Alok Sharma, several times, helpfully reiterated that the Green Belt can be reviewed in exceptional circumstances. Tim Montgomery described Green Belt as, “the most pernicious form of regulation in UK history, four times worse than anything from Brussels”
Skills and capacity was also a focus and another interesting tension emerged. Namely the need to attract young bricklayers, carpenters, roofers, etc into the industry now, but, at the same time, promoting the modern methods of construction which could potentially see lower demand for such skills in the future. The sector obviously needs to manage the messaging strategy here. It is going to need bricklayers and carpenters for a very long time yet and messages that such skills are short-term and dying would be misleading and unhelpful.
So there was more interest on the importance of building more housing than hitherto. But the gap between party conference rhetoric and local decisions remains. During the conference itself:
– we heard that a major City Council have decided to delay the publication of their Site Allocations Plan in order to review their proposed Green Belt figures in light of the new, reduced, OAN figures from DCLG.
– Barratt passed the one year mark on a planning application for housing on an allocated site which also delivers a much needed brand new rugby club