Theresa May used her keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference to call upon housebuilders to do their bit in tackling the country’s housing crisis.
Having pledged an extra £2bn of government money for local authorities across the UK to build more affordable homes, the PM said housebuilders “must do your duty to Britain and build the houses we need”.
In a speech beset with problems – P45 pranksters, coughing fits and falling ‘Fs’ – this was May’s Lord Kitchener moment.
Standing in front of the slogan ‘Building a better future that works for everyone’, she said: “For 30 or 40 years we simply haven’t built enough homes. And that’s been a disaster for young people.
“Today I can announce an extra £2bn funding for affordable housing, taking this government’s total affordable housing budget to almost £9bn. We will encourage councils, as well as housing associations, to bid for this money.
“And for those areas where the housing need is most acute, we are getting government involved in housebuilding again. We will build a new generation of council houses to fix the broken housing market.
“To housebuilders, we the government will make sure the land is available, in return you must do your duty to Britain and build the houses we need.”
But where is the land going to come from? One proposed plan is to use publicly-owned land, while another option would be to compulsory purchase privately-owned land.
Furthermore, commercial developers would be ordered to hit tough new targets to build affordable homes at a faster rate.
Overall, the reaction to the Conservatives’ plans has been largely positive. Everyone recognises that there is a desperate need to build more homes in the UK and any measures to enable this to happen should be welcomed.
But before we get carried away, let’s not forget that successive governments have tried and failed at fixing the housing problem.
Ten years ago, the Barker Review of Housing Supply suggested that around 250,000 homes needed to be built every year to prevent spiralling house prices and a shortage of affordable homes. In 2014, just over half (141,000) that figure was achieved.
In 2015, the government commissioned Natalie Elphicke and Keith House to publish a report on the role of councils in housing supply. The report suggested that councils should be responsible for making sure there are enough homes for their residents.
However, just as Mrs May is suggesting today, even back then it was recognised that for all the good councils can and should be doing to deliver new housing, they must be supported by the private sector.
The report states: “While councils should be leading the housing revolution, they can’t do it all by themselves. Councils are at their best when working with others to assess, shape and deliver for the needs of their communities.”
This is a key point. As a country, if we are going to deliver enough new homes to meet current and future demand, both the public and private sector need to work more closely together.
For example, the government could provide additional funds to improve the delivery of privately owned brownfield sites through increased public sector intervention and joint ventures with the private sector and institutional funds.
The public sector would undertake greater levels of investment and intervention in access, public transport, public realm, remediation, education and access to speed up the delivery of currently undeliverable sites and in doing so encourage investment from the private sector into areas and sites that are currently no-go areas.
Albeit a hot potato, releasing greenfield land for development is another key factor in the future deliverability of new homes, as is the simplification of the planning system, which is still too slow, bureaucratic and expensive.
And then, of course, there is the thorny issue of if all the available land is being used for housing, where is the employment land going to come from? That’s a separate debate altogether.
Theresa May said she will dedicate her premiership to fixing the housing problem. I hope for all our sakes that she succeeds.