Making Britain's Houses into Homes: In the Second of Our Series of Round-Table Debates, Another Panel of Experts Considers the Landscape of Public and Private Investment Needed to Meet Demand

New Statesman (1996), September 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

Making Britain's Houses into Homes: In the Second of Our Series of Round-Table Debates, Another Panel of Experts Considers the Landscape of Public and Private Investment Needed to Meet Demand


Bill Randall Many of us around this table have campaigned for housing and have told the government that [building new housing] is the quickest way to get people back to work. We need homes that can reduce our carbon footprint and so on. However, the government has all of a sudden identified housing as one of the quickest ways to stop investment, because it can just turn that tap off. As 70 per cent of people now own their own home, it does not have the same negative effect on them as, say, cutting health or education would.

Richard Parker We are working on the future of housing associations and how they might renew themselves; I think that is a challenge for the sector. The issues that we have worked on at length over the past couple of years have been the role of government intervening in these markets and supporting the sector, and the policy case for doing so. Some aspects of that seem to be missing from the policy agenda.

In terms of the work that we are doing, I have always been struck by how governments in the past consistently failed to align objectives and incentives in the appropriate way. The classic case of this was the local housing companies in the 1997 green paper. This was a catalyst for a great deal of new thinking in local government, and lots of interesting models evolved, but the government and the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) at that time were not able or permitted to extend grants to new developments.

If a local authority is willing to commit land, it still needs a subsidy so that it can work. That was not forthcoming or aligned, so there were many initiatives which failed to go anywhere. Unless we address some of the issues in the round, we could repeat that experience--where nothing happened with the local housing companies two and a half years after they were conceived. That is half the length of a parliament. A great deal of intellectual and financial energy went into something, and nothing productive came out of it.

Bill Randall You did say that you felt there were some other things missing from the agenda. What are they?

Richard Parker I certainly do not have--and I think this is true for many of us--any clarity at all about the government's policies in relation to housing in terms of priorities, how we should address issues of investment backlogs in stock, and, potentially, how we should allocate the resources that are going to be available going forward. That is both geographic and in terms of tenure.

Kate Barker It is very difficult to say today what the policy direction is. It is possibly even fair to say that we do not really know. One of the things that depressed me about all the manifestos in the election--and, indeed, the coalition document--was that they did not say much about housing and that, actually, they are going to think that putting a policy together is a work-in-progress.

I suspect we will not know more in this area, as in many other areas, until after we have seen the spending review. It is perfectly true that we do not know today, but frankly, I would not have expected to know.

Bill Randall Until we get a review. How do you work in that vacuum, Keith?

Keith Exford David Cowans and I have been working with other, like-minded people on how we might tackle a system that is, in effect, broken. The starting point has been identifying the purpose of an affordable housing product. If you know the purpose, you can think about what that product needs to look like. There is a terrible lack of clarity about that. There is a historic view about council housing and a historic view about how housing associations have either trodden on the territory of local authorities or not. You end up with rather ill-informed opinion from places like Policy Exchange [in its recent publication Making Housing Affordable], and an analysis of the problems that I do not quite recognise.

They do at least acknowledge that supply is at the root of the difficulties we face in this broken system, but they fail to understand that the right to buy [council housing] had an awful lot to do with that, not least because of the failure to reinvest the proceeds and replace what was lost. …

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