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Mon May 17 2021

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House-building policy now run from 10 Downing Street

5 Oct 17 Amid the coughing, the croaking and other interruptions, the prime minister yesterday revealed that she had now taken personal control of UK housing policy.

Prime minister Theresa May battled coughs and croaks to speak for more than an hour
Prime minister Theresa May battled coughs and croaks to speak for more than an hour

Theresa May’s answer to ‘Britain’s broken housing market’ is a return to public sector house-building, “getting government back into the business of building houses”, she said.

“It won’t be quick or easy, but as prime minister I am going to make it my mission to solve this problem. I will take personal charge of the government’s response, and make the British Dream a reality by reigniting home ownership in Britain once again,” she told the 2017 Conservative party conference in Manchester yesterday.

Struggling to deliver her speech because of a cough and sore throat – and interrupted by a prankster who, despite all the security, was able to hand her a mock P45 with the message “It’s from Boris” – the PM failed to deliver the barnstormer many consider to have been needed to assert her authority and grip on control. However, there was plenty of content, with most of it seemingly aimed at recapturing lost and wavering Tory voters.

The evidence of her new chief of staff Gavin Barwell exerting an influence is clear. He was the government’s housing minister from July 2016 until he lost his Croydon Central seat in the June 2017 general election. Widely regarded as one of the more enthusiastic housing ministers of recent years, it seems that he will now control housing policy from within Number 10.

Theresa May also sought to break some of her ‘Maybot’ image by opening up a little. Firstly, she made a public apology to the party for screwing up the election earlier this year; it was called with the expectation of an increased majority for the Conservatives but in fact they lost their parliamentary majority. It was her fault, she admitted.

Secondly she personalised her political vision, talking of her family roots and her childlessness, before launching into policy detail.

“Just over a decade ago, 59% of 25-34 year olds owned their own home. Today it is just 38%. It has always been a great sadness for me and Philip that we were never blessed with children. It seems some things in life are just never meant to be. But I believe in the dream that life should be better for the next generation as much as any mother. Any father. Any grandparent.

“The only difference is that I have the privileged position of being able to do more than most to bring that dream to life. So I will dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem – to restoring hope. To renewing the British Dream for a new generation of people. And that means fixing our broken housing market.”

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“We will invest an additional £2bn in affordable housing – taking the government’s total affordable housing budget to almost £9bn.

“We will encourage councils as well as housing associations to bid for this money and provide certainty over future rent levels. And in those parts of the country where the need is greatest, allow homes to be built for social rent, well below market level. Getting government back into the business of building houses. A new generation of council houses to help fix our broken housing market.”

She also had a message of hope for the construction industry. “I want to send the clearest possible message to our house-builders. We, the government, will make sure the land is available. We’ll make sure our young people have the skills you need. In return, you must do your duty to Britain and build the homes our country needs.”

Trafford Housing Trust, a housing association that manages 9,000 homes in Manchester, welcomed Mrs Mays plans. “For far too long the emphasis on homeownership has left the many families who cannot afford to own with only the expensive, insecure and poor quality offer of much of the private rented sector,” said its chief executive, Matthew Gardiner. “Successive governments have ignored the fact that a well-functioning housing market needs the underpinning of a modern and adequate social housing element.  By bringing social housing to the centre of housing strategy, and by giving the tools that local authorities and housing associations need to work together in effective partnerships, the prospects for these families are significantly improved.”

The Federation of Master Builders is also firmly behind her. FMB chief executive Brian Berry said: “Despite the prime minister’s precarious political position since the general election, Theresa May has managed to take a braver and bolder stance on house-building than any prime minister of recent years. The private sector will continue to expand the number of new homes it builds, particularly so if the government succeeds in its aim of removing barriers that hold back small scale house builders. However, in the house building heyday of the 1950/60s, a healthy private sector was always complemented by significant levels of social house building. Indeed, we have only ever built at the level we need to keep pace with demand when both the private and public house building sectors have been firing on all fronts. In the 1960s, for example, we were building around 400,000 homes per year and half of those were social housing.”

Mr Berry continued: “The prime minister’s plan is also an opportunity to help shape a stronger local house-building industry. If councils can start to engage with smaller, local builders to deliver this new generation of council housing, it could further help to diversify the industry. This would also boost the capacity of the private sector through the provision of more public sector work. Indeed, the increased use of small and medium-sized building firms will limit the problem of land banking, as this is something small builders simply don’t do.”

He concluded: “There do remain however, some significant roadblocks to the prime minister’s vision. Following Brexit, the serious shortage of skilled labour the construction industry is already dealing with will be exacerbated if it becomes much more difficult for EU tradespeople, who have come to play a crucial part in plugging the industry’s chronic skills gap, to move to and work in the UK. Although the industry must seek to overcome this crisis by recruiting and training many more young people than we currently do, the government must also be mindful and realistic about the continuing need there will be for skilled EU workers as it puts in place its post-Brexit immigration policy.”

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