Robert Halfon: Tories must be the party of social housing

Posted On: 
4th October 2017

A former minister has called for the Government to plough billions of pounds into social housing as part of an overhaul to the Tories’ policy platform.

Credit: 
PA

Robert Halfon said ministers should devote as much attention to building new social housing for those on low incomes as they do towards flagship initiatives to help first-time buyers such as Help to Buy.

He argued a “truly radical Conservative government” would couple an expansive social house-building programme with policies to aid people seeking to get onto the housing ladder.

Mr Halfon was speaking at a fringe hosted by ConservativeHome at Tory party conference, titled ‘Housebuilding and skills post-Brexit: who will build the homes we need’. The event ran in partnership with the National House Building Council (NHBC), Federation of Master Builders (FMB) and the Home Building Federation (HBF).

He was joined on the panel by Brian Berry, chief executive of the FMB; John Slaughter, director of external affairs at the HBF; and Lewis Sidnick, director of corporate affairs at NHBC.

Mr Halfon, who is now the chair of the Education Select Committee, claimed that the two “most significant” challenges facing Britain relate to housing and the skills of the UK workforce.

He called for a “radical liberalisation of planning laws” to allow land to be built on the greenbelt. “We have to be a party of builders otherwise we just are letting down millions of people in our country,” he argued.

The Harlow MP also welcomed the additional £10bn allotted to extend the Help the Buy scheme announced by Theresa May over the weekend.

But he continued: “If there’s £10bn for that, I would love us to find billions of pounds for housing associations to build social housing for people on low incomes and real quality social housing. I think that would provide an important incentive to build and provide and liberalise planning laws at the same time. I think it would make a significant difference.

“I think a truly radical Conservative government would say we want hundreds of thousands of social houses as well as allowing people who want to get on the ladder and buy their home.”

He argued that ministers should provide tax incentives for housing associations to build more social housing.

“Our party must be proud and defend social housing, because it’s about putting a roof over people’s heads that are on very low incomes.

“The idea that my constituents, some of them who are on very low incomes and struggling and working, the idea that they can even think of having a shared ownership schemes and start paying mortgages and everything is just for the birds. So, social housing has to be first, second and third in terms of what we believe as a party.”

‘NIGHTMARE ON SKILLS STREET’

Each panellist recognised that even with a liberalisation of planning laws and other measures to enact house building, Britain still has a skills shortage in the construction industry to build the homes.

Mr Halfon joined the FMB’s Brian Berry, HBF’s John Slaughter and NHBC’s Lewis Sidnick in saying work has to be done to redress the negative perception some people hold of working in the construction industry.

“We face a huge prestige problem. If we are to actually even get people on the rung or on the conveyor built to doing construction skills… we have actually got to encourage people to do it,” he said.

“We have to transform the prestige of high quality skills and construction skills in our country. We have to embed it in the curriculum.”

Mr Halfon argued that ministers should be cognisant of developments in automation to ensure that workers are trained in areas of need.

“Our country is a nightmare on skills street,” he declared. “Generation after generation of governments of all persuasions, and businesses, have not invested in training in the way that other countries do.

“We have got to acknowledge as a part this problem that housing and that we have to be really radical on this… We need to transform the prestige of skills in careers, and know the skills that we need are not the skills necessarily we have today. They’re going to be increasingly done by robots, but we need to build the skills that we’re going to need in 10, 20, 30 years’ time.”

The FMB’s Brian Berry also noted the shortage of skills in the construction industry, which he argued predates the Brexit vote.

“Although there has been talk about the impact of Brexit on skills, there was a growing skills shortage before the EU referendum. At the moment all our members are saying there is a severe shortage of bricklayers, carpenters and labour,” he said.

To rectify this, Mr Berry called for the industry to develop quality apprenticeships to attract young people to enter the sector, and a “sensible debate” about immigration policy post leaving the EU.

He explained: “Although there’s been an emphasis on allowing skilled labour into the country; in the building industry we want semi-skilled labour as well, otherwise we’re going to have a real challenge building the number of homes and infrastructure that is required for Britain to compete in a global economy.

“We need to improve the image of the industry, particularly opening up to more women and ethnic minorities, saying this ‘is an attractive career for anyone wanting to join us’.”

Mr Slaughter said the housing sector as a whole has a responsibility to ensure it is at the “forefront” of fixing the “skills issue” in the industry.

He argued improving the ability of the construction workforce matters for UK productivity. 

“If we don’t fix the skills issue in the industry in the right way, then we won’t be able to deliver the benefits in terms of more housing that we want to see.”

But he also called on ministers to allow more flexibility in the use of the apprenticeship levy and an overhaul of the construction industry training board.

SMEs

During the discussion, Mr Berry lamented the “marked decline” in the number of local house builders in Britain today.

“To give you some idea of that decline, in the late 1980s, two-thirds of all new homes were built by SMEs. That has fallen to 23% last year,” he continued.

Citing a survey of FMB members, Mr Berry said their main concerns were around availability of land to build on, availability of finance to fund it and complexity and cost of the planning system.

Mr Berry argued small and medium sized construction firms would be central to the UK building the 250,000 of homes required each year.

“If we are going to build the number of homes required, we are going to need an upsurge in local house builders,” he said.

The NHBC’s Lewis Sidnick, meanwhile, said there were three issues to address in the UK construction industry:

  • The need to upskill and retrain the current workforce
  • Widen the pool of staff entering the sector, by encouraging more women and young people to join
  • Broaden the type of skills the industry is teaching