Home is where the vote is: will the housing crisis determine the next election?
Once again, fervent discussion around housing policy was a dominant theme at Conservative Party Conference. Angus Parsad-Wyatt, CEO of Conservative Home was joined by a panel of Professional Body presidents from across the built environment at the conference to discuss this very issue. The panel focused on conversations that cross political and generational divides, including housing numbers, build targets, build quality and sustainability.
In a packed ConHome Marquee, President of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) Sandi Rhys Jones joined her fellow Professional Body presidents to discuss just how influential housing will be as a determining factor at the impending general election and how a party once defined as the ‘party of home ownership’ should address growing concerns in the coming months.
In her opening gambit, Sandi Rhys Jones made clear the CIOB’s commitment to upholding standards within the sector and delivering an effective construction industry for the people working in it and reliant on it. Describing housing as ‘an essential part of all of us’, Rhys Jones insists upon describing them as ‘homes’ – because, in her belief, that is what they are and that is what this really all means.
She reiterates the CIOB is focused on tackling the variation in housing delivery. Specifically, on how the UK can transform what we already have - the oldest housing stock in Europe - into homes that are not only fit to live in but are delivered and are maintained to be energy efficient. Net-zero will be crucially important, Sandi argues, in reducing the cost of living in those homes.
Collaboration, at the heart of Sandi’s presidency, will also be key in tackling the widespread delays, lack of availability and affordability in new homes. Working alongside other professional bodies and the government, CIOB is looking to establish a unified and coherent strategy which at its core tackles the workforce shortfall of 225,000 people.
Muyiwa Oki, the youngest person to head up the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in its 189-year history, is proud that advocacy for a more sustainable built environment and increased diversity and inclusion across the industry. Muyiwa argues that diversity doesn’t just encourage innovation by bringing in new perspectives, but also means the people designing new homes and spaces know and reflect the community new built environments will serve.
President of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Sue Bridge, firmly believes that the answer to whether housing will determine the next election is an emphatic yes. Arguing that not only have the systems we rely on to deliver pathways into homeownership found themselves in a perfect storm, but Sue also takes the opportunity to remind everyone that the sector is witnessing first-hand the increasing politicisation and polarisation of housing issues across the country.
Council planning budgets have fallen by 43% across England, on average, since 2013 at the same time that a quarter of qualified planners have left the public sector.
Placing the blame for delays and lack of delivery at the feet of continued legislative and regulatory uncertainty, RTPI is calling on politicians and local leaders to “step up to the plate and deliver a better culture and aspiration about home ownership and delivery of home”.
In response, Martin Simpson – the Chair of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) – feels housing “probably should be, but it probably won’t be” a deciding factor in the approaching election, noting that he suspects topical issues such as tax cuts or the NHS will claim that mantle. Real estate is the largest asset class globally, totalling over £217 trillion; mostly residential. Simpson argues it has not been high enough on the political agenda for a long time. It is ill-advised, not just from a business perspective, but also from a personal economic perspective. Housing can be up to 60% of a family’s monthly spend, and has the capacity to affect their health, family plans and economic activity. Simpson argues an economic point; whatever government can do to help bring that down, will enable families to spend on other things and pursue a better standard of living.
As of March 2022, only 42% of local planning authorities had a fully up to date local plan for delivering infrastructure including housing. Only two thirds of English councils have a five-year land supply.
Simpson acknowledges understaffing and increased bureaucracy as a cause of the ongoing dysfunctionality in the UK planning system but also points to the overly complicated house-buying process that plagues those trying to enter and already on the property ladder. It takes six months on average to purchase property. Solutions including increased help-to-buy flexible and innovative mortgage products and a general rebalancing of the supply- demand equation are put forward.
Housing and Planning Minister Rachel MacLean – now the longest serving since Kit Malthouse - is not convinced. In admitting that much must be done in the space, she recognises that housing is an incredibly complex issue to be the decider for an election. While in agreement with President of the RTPI on the polarised nature of the debate, Minister Maclean recalls that colleagues saw the Planning brief as a poisoned chalice. MacLean argues for a holistic approach; the housing crisis and planning system by extension is not going to be fixed overnight by tearing up the existing framework. There is no single answer; but examining the crisis from the demand perspective with an interventionist lens is the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities initial focus. Only by empowering local communities and hubs, like Cambridge, can we achieve the UKs aims of being at the forefront of scientific innovation.
In her closing remarks, Sandi spoke about how the culture of planning must change. The sector and Government must move away from DAD - Decide, Announce, defend – to MUM – Meet, Unify, motivate – if we want to see increased local support for developments.
Empowering SME builders, Sandi feels, will also be at the crux of building a sustainable and economically impactful housing pipeline. By employing local people and delivering homes that fit the community, SME builds are economically impactful and upskill local residents in the area.
Sandi asks a different question to conclude her statements. She puts forward an alternative point to everyone’s push for home ownership. The bigger question, she argues, is not can everyone afford to buy a home but has everyone got a decent and safe place to call home.
MacLean recognises the calls from stakeholders to reform the planning system but calls for a more measured approach. We must learn from what we’re doing right and build on that, not smash the entire system up completely.
Out of the last five years we've had the three highest years of housing supply delivery for the last 30 years.
Maclean closes with a rallying call for plans to think wider than just housing. The Minister points out that when we get local plans that work - when plans factor in the infrastructure to support new developments including transport, green spaces and playparks - those areas are delivering 14% more houses. She knows it doesn't sound like a lot but it's a lot better than 14% less or some areas which have no local plans at all.
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