Six months ago, building new homes for the British was heralded as one of the great crusades of Theresa May’s Conservative government.
A housing green paper published in February led on the theme of looking after Generation Rent, with ministers quietly acknowledging that residential property prices had risen so high in many areas that the Conservative dream of a property-owning democracy was unattainable.
The Conservative vision for the 21st century has shifted the emphasis from ownership to affordable rent. Traditional Conservative canvassers found this harder to sell on the doorsteps at the general election. As yet, we have heard little since the election from the new Housing Minister Alok Sharma on the plans to replace Help to Buy with Build to Rent as the new flagship policy.
The government’s authority has declined since its failure to secure an overall majority. There is little prospect of major new housing legislation over the next two years. In place of central government initiative, we are now seeing local government politicians trying to seize the initiative.
In a speech to the Reform think tank a fortnight ago, the leader of Westminster City Council, Nickie Aiken, set out a determined policy to force developers to build more affordable homes to rent. Westminster is an area where just 1 in 30 households occupies so-called intermediate housing. Pledging to improve this ratio, Cllr Aiken asserted that it is still possible for aspiring Westminster residents to build up equity stakes in their homes, even if they do not achieve their dream of full home ownership. She wants to work with the financial services industry to develop products which enable tenants to rent while simultaneously building up an equity stake in their home.
Neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea is reeling from the Grenfell Tower fire which claimed 81 lives and left nearly 200 families homeless. The leader and chief executive have resigned, accepting they failed to respond quickly enough to the needs of the traumatised residents. Last week saw the election of Elizabeth Campbell as their new leader.
Like Nickie Aiken in Westminster, Elizabeth Campbell is a diminutive figure possessed of courage. She has taken no time at all to snap up 68 units in Kensington Row and a further 31 in Hortensia Road, the latter for a cool £25 million. The units will be offered to many of the 170 households left homeless by the fire, who are being temporarily housed in hotel accommodation.
One idea that both these Conservative council leaders have pushed is cutting a bespoke housing deal with government. These would involve the government lifting some of the legal, financial and planning restrictions on councils in return for a commitment to build more social and affordable homes in new designated housing zones. The government floated the idea of bespoke deals in the February green paper, and you would be a brave person to bet against the leaders of Kensington and Westminster councils getting their deals in place before too long.
Getting the issue of housing up to the top of the political agenda is a signal achievement of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Yet his vision of socially provided homes, financed and owned by the public sector, is much more rigid than the emerging Conservative view that the country needs more homes of all kinds of tenure.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, latched onto the affordable housing theme in his London manifesto last year, pledging to make 50% of new homes affordable. He has recently criticised the developers of Battersea Power Station for allowing the proportion of affordable homes there to drop to 9%… a mere 41% short of his target.
Who knows how long the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy will take? The judge in charge, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has not yet been able to agree the terms of reference. The focus of blame to date has been on the flammable properties of the cladding but there will probably be many more horrendous revelations before he has finished writing his report.