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Conservative manifesto: Theresa May bids extra 500,000 homes for keys to Number 10

The Conservative Party manifesto has offered what amounts to a grudging admission that social housing has a key role to play in fixing the broken housing market, but its commitment to help councils build may prove something of a loaded gift.

In some respects, the housing element of the manifesto builds on Housing White Paper. Indeed, it commits the party to delivering the reforms proposed in that document, but it also raises the stakes with its pledge to deliver an extra 500,000 new homes between 2020 and 2022. This is on top of the existing commitment to deliver a million homes by 2020.

“We will fix the dysfunctional housing market so that housing is more affordable and people have the security they need to plan for the future,” it says. “The key to this is to build enough homes to meet demand. That will slow the rise in housing costs so more ordinary, working families can afford to buy a home, and bring the cost of renting down. And it will ensure that more private capital is invested in more productive investment, helping the economy to grow faster and more securely in future years.”

Significantly, the manifesto effectively acknowledges the critical role council and social housing providers have in helping the next government fix the broken market, and it pledges help to councils to build more homes. “We will never achieve the numbers of new houses we require without the active participation of social and municipal housing providers,” as the document puts it.

Despite this remarkable break from the “cosy consensus” that has dominated over recent years, there’s an unmistakeable sense that it has come through gritted teeth – and the manifesto goes on to add a rather sour note to this volte face on social housing.

“This must not be done at the expense of high standards, however: Councils have been amongst the worst offenders in failing to build sustainable, integrated communities. In some instances, they have built for political gain rather than for social purpose.”

Over the long term, this help might turn out to be something of a loaded gift, seeing as it comes with a right-to-buy tag attached.

The Conservatives propose New Council Deals on housing, offered to those local authorities the next government deem sufficiently “ambitious, pro-development” and capable of proving they will build “high-quality, sustainable and integrated communities”.

As had been previously announced, this help to build more social housing comes with the caveat that such homes must ultimately be flogged off. After 10-15 years, councils would be obliged to sell the homes under right-to-buy with the sitting tenant offered given first dibs on the property. The proceeds of the sale, the manifesto claims, would be recycled into further homes.

These ‘new deals’ would come with reforms to compulsory purchase powers, intended to make them easier and less expensive for councils to use.

For housing associations, meanwhile, the Conservatives are offering them greater flexibility to increase their housing stock.

The manifesto also says that a Conservative government would take steps to improve the quality of the homes built, as well as the developments themselves, with infrastructure, parks and so forth. Green Belts, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty would be given “strong protections” (although how that squares with the manifesto’s green light for fracking is another matter).

There came a promise to rebalance housing growth across the country so that it is not concentrated in the South East, and it pledges government to build 160,000 homes on its own land. There was also a pledge of support for specialist housing “where it is needed” such as housing for older people.

“These policies will take time and meanwhile we will continue to support those struggling to buy or rent, including those living in a home owned by a housing association,” the manifesto said.

All told, it joins the club in acknowledging that social housing has a critical role to play in solving the housing crisis, but the manifesto lacks the detail of, say, its Labour counterpart, and there are no efforts at costing the proposals. This lack of detail has been noted by industry figures, particularly in respect of some critical policy areas.

“With 12 million of us now renting from a private landlord, it’s disappointing not to see more detail on the Conservatives’ policies to improve the rental market,” said Dan Wilson Craw, director of Generation Rent.

“Private renters have little idea how long their home is theirs for, so increasing security is a welcome development in the Tories’ housing policy. But until we know what this will entail, and who decides who a ‘good tenant’ is, voters will be left in the dark. One option would be to restrict the ability of landlords to evict tenants who aren’t in breach of their agreement, which is currently far too easy.

“The support for councils to build more homes is an important recognition of how broken the housing market is, but there is no detail of the scale and who could afford these. The plan to sell them off after 10 years seems arbitrary and unnecessary, especially if the occupants can’t afford to buy them.

“Ultimately, to bring rents down to reasonable levels, we need more supply and while the government has raised its ambitions to deliver 500,000 in 2021 and 2022, this still falls short of what the country needs.”

Terrie Alafat CBE, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, said: “All three major parties have now rightly recognised that we need an ambitious long-term plan to get to grips with our national housing crisis. We know we need to build at least 250,000 homes a year in England to meet demand, so it’s very positive to see commitments to increase house-building in all of the major parties’ manifestos.

“But it’s not just about building more homes, it’s about building more affordable homes for people on lower incomes. We need more homes across the spectrum – for home ownership, for private and social rent, and for shared ownership – but we believe more investment is urgently needed in affordable homes to rent.

“Historically we have only built anywhere near the number of homes we need when the public sector has been directly involved in building, so it’s encouraging to see the Conservatives commit to help councils build more homes, including through capital funding. The pledge to help housing associations build more homes is also welcome.

“Matching these ambitious plans with successful delivery will require a long-term plan combined with significant investment, so we would be interested to see more detail on how these commitments would be funded.”

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said: “This is a real show of faith in the housing association sector’s ability to deliver the homes the nation needs. Housing associations are rightly seen as having a key role in the delivery of new homes – in partnership with Government, the sector will build hundreds of thousands of new homes for those who need them most.

“The move to work with all housebuilders to better capture the increase in land value is really positive. This will ensure the benefits of development are shared more equally with communities, used to deliver more new homes and infrastructure, and hopefully further improve public attitudes to new housing.

“We are really pleased to see a commitment to work with housing associations to build more specialist housing, but to do this we need to ensure sustainable long-term funding for supported housing.

“We look forward working in partnership with whoever forms the next Government to tackle the broken housing market.”

Alan Ward, chair of the Residential Landlords Association, said: “With almost two million new homes to rent needed by 2025 this manifesto does not go far enough in supporting good landlords to develop the new homes we need.

“We need a tax system that encourages landlords wanting to invest in new homes for tenants and a planning system that frees up small plots as well as improving existing stock.

“Should they win on June 8 we will work with Conservative ministers to ensure they harness the opportunities the private rental market presents to meet today’s manifesto commitment to 1.5 million new homes by 2022.”

Natalie Elphicke, chief executive of the Housing & Finance Institute, said: “The Conservative Party’s housing pledges – launched today in their manifesto – provide the country with a clear framework for building the homes the country needs. In particular, The Housing & Finance Institute welcomes pledges to extend support for deprived coastal communities and to proceed with more housing devolution.

"In extending the programme to help some of the country’s poorest seaside towns, the Conservative manifesto has heeded the call in our recent Turning the Tide report.

“We also know that housebuilding is most effectively co-ordinated at the local level. In awarding councils – particularly outside of the big cities – more power and money to meet their regional housing demands, we will be adopting an approach best placed to deliver the homes our country needs for the future.

"It is welcome that all main party manifestos have recognised the key role of councils as well as the need to continue to deliver many more homes for the country's needs."

Bjorn Howard, chief executive of Aster Group, welcomed the fact that, with the Conservative manifesto’s commitments, all the major parties “appear to recognise the scale of the housing crisis”.

“They have put forward some bold ideas to tackle these issues,” he added. “We accept that Brexit will remain a central theme of the campaign but the chronic lack of housing supply is the one thing affecting almost everyone in the country, particularly young people.

“Whoever wins on 8 June, it’s crucial that all housebuilders signal their willingness to partner with government on policies to increase the number of high-quality, affordable homes on the market. Alternative tenures like shared ownership have a key role to play in this.

“In our view partnership working must sit at the heart of the response to the crisis and this includes developers pooling resources and expertise to boost build rates.”


Photo credit: Tom Evans. Crown Copyright

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