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At home with... Gavin Barwell MP

In his debut speech to the National Housing Federation conference, Gavin Barwell offered a softening of the previous regime’s hardline stance on homeownership, writes Mark Cantrell, but it’s up to the sector to test the limits of this apparent spirit of detente

 

"I share your purpose. I want to work with you. And I am very well aware that I need your help to do what needs to be done.”

So said Gavin Barwell MP, housing and planning minister, as he presented himself to his audience at the National Housing Federation’s (NHF) conference and exhibition, and he immediately set something of a different tone from many of his recent predecessors.

Whether this change of tone is down to personality, the dramatic shift in the personnel and outlook of Government, or simply a result of an ideological realignment among senior housing association figures, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, there was a certain air of detente to Barwell’s speech. Indeed, he not only told his audience he wanted to “build a strong relationship” with them, but that they were “key allies”.

But whether the tune has changed is another matter. That one is a little harder to gauge. Home ownership remained at the forefront of his speech, and he played heavily on the importance of the voluntary right-to-buy deal towards achieving the Government’s aspiration to grow the number of homeowners.

“In the past, housing associations have not always been associated with efforts to increase homeownership – or even to build more homes. No one can say that anymore,” Barwell said. “And today you are on the verge of extending the opportunity of homeownership to hundreds of thousands of your tenants. Many never dreamed they would have that opportunity.”

Barwell promised his audience that the Government was eager to roll it out nationally beyond its five pilots, and he took the occasion to thank David Orr for his leadership in brokering the deal.

“Many people were surprised – perhaps even disappointed – that the Government and NHF members were able to find common cause and do it so quickly,” Barwell said. “It wasn’t part of their script. The one that says the housing market is all about conflict – public versus private, renting versus buying, demand versus supply. You’ve shown this doesn’t need to be the case.”

The minister also took aim at the notion of conflict in other areas too, rejecting a string of “false choices” that have “mired the housing debate for years”, saying there is “no silver bullet to this problem”.

“Why don’t we build enough homes in this country? Some people tell me it’s all the planners’ fault. Government isn’t releasing enough land and the planning system is too slow and uncertain,” Barwell said. “Others tell me it’s all the developers’ fault. There’s plenty of land in the system but they’re banking it and only building homes at a trickle to keep prices high. The truth is we need to release more land, we need to speed up the planning system, and we need to get homes built quicker once planning permission is granted.

“Some people tell me I should concentrate on building more homes for people to buy. Most people want to own their own home so that should be my focus. Others tell me we just have to accept that many young people in certain parts of the country are never going to be able to afford their own home and I should concentrate on building homes for rent. The truth is we need more homes for sale, we need more homes for private rent, and more sub-market homes for rent.”

In itself, it doesn’t sound much of a break from the Cameronian age, yet if homeownership remains the overarching theme of the script, it nevertheless represents the scribbling of some margin notes for further discussion. It is significant, in that it acknowledges other pertinent components of the housing crisis as a multi-tenure affair that will need multi-tenure solutions.

There was a subtle shift, too, in some of the arguments Barwell presented in defence of the now-traditional government backing for homeownership. Again, while it may prove throwaway rhetoric in the longer term, it nevertheless opens up some avenue of discussion, if not hard lobbying.

“Housing is one of those rare issues that affects everyone,” Barwell acknowledged. “We haven’t built enough homes in this country for a very, very long time. As a London MP I see the consequences of that failure every single week in my surgeries. Young people forced to live in their parents’ home well into their thirties...

“People renting in the private sector, trying to save for a deposit on a home of their own but unable to do so because the rent swallows up such a big proportion of their monthly income. People living in overcrowded conditions who have been stuck on a waiting list for a transfer for years. And people who can’t find anywhere to live, who are accepted as homeless by their local council and then face an extended stay in emergency accommodation.”

He went on to say: “This isn’t just a problem for aspirational members of Generation Y who want to own their own home; it has consequences for all of us. If more and more people can’t get on the housing ladder, competition for tenancies in the private and social rented sectors will become more and more intense. Private sector rents will continue to rise and more and more working people will need help from housing benefit to pay their bills.

“So if our job in the last Parliament was to rescue the housing market from the lowest level of housebuilding since the 1920s, now we must make it work for everyone. This is one of the defining challenges of our generation.”

At the end of the day, it was a political speech by a new incumbent playing to the gallery (as politicians are wont to do). Nevertheless, that spirit of detente and that loosening of the homeownership strictures (however slight) marks something of an opening.

So it’s up to the sector to gird its lobbying loins and test the minister’s words: was he simply engaging in a rhetorical performance – or does he mean business? You decide.

 

This article first appeared in the October/November 2016 print edition of Housing magazine

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