The housing minister tells Prospect that Britain nearly ran out of bricksby Jay Elwes / September 17, 2015 / Leave a comment
“It doesn’t matter how many houses we need to build, we need people physically to build them,” said Brandon Lewis, the Minister of State for Housing and Planning. “There is still a really big issue around human resources and we are working with BIS [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] and the industry to get more people to come into construction generally. There’s a real challenge,”
Lewis, 44, was made Housing Minister in 2014, at the end of the Coalition government, having held a more junior role in the same department. The Coalition’s two main achievements in housing policy were the devolution of greater planning control to local authorities and the introduction of Help to Buy, a scheme under which the government paid part of the deposits made by first-time buyers. Although the first was welcomed, reaction to the second was clouded by suggestions that the net effect was to inflate house prices further.
Britain’s housing problem is increasingly acute. Successive governments have failed to build enough new homes, and Lewis’s suggestion that builders are failing to find enough workers is a new contribution to a debate that was noisy in the General Election campaign and now in the contest for London mayor—and in the public debate about immigration.
“Within the bigger scheme of things, immigration plays a part,” says Lewis, “but I wouldn’t over emphasise it.” He accepts that the problem is partly due to the failure of governments to build more homes, but argues that the changing demographics of Britain are more important.
“We have a changing population,” he said. “Middle age is getting a lot longer, so there are people in their mid-seventies who would class themselves, physically, as middle-aged.” As a consequence, he said, “people are staying in their homes much longer,” rather than going into care homes, which has caused huge amounts of property equity to accrue to the over-65s. It also means that larger, family homes are less likely to come on to the market for sale.
Changing social attitudes are exacerbating the shortage, he said. “Families are splitting up. Whereas in the past a family would have a house, quite often now if parents split up [one house] they will need two houses.”
The scramble for more homes has brought into question the future of the 14 Green Belts that surround cities including London, Bristol and Manchester, where development is tightly controlled.
“I don’t see the Green Belt as too big an issue, for two reasons,” said Lewis. “Local areas can assess their Green Belt and take a view on whether they want to change it,” a comment suggesting that the government may be prepared to relax controls, although this would provoke local uproar and is unpopular nationally. He puts more emphasis, though, on the “huge amount of brownfield land”—a much more popular solution. “We have been looking, in the Housing Bill, at changing some of the rules around brownfield, making it easier to develop.” The Campaign to Protect Rural England estimates that 1.5m homes could be built on brownfield sites.
“If we get housing supply right then house prices become more stable. But,” he said “I don’t think personally you’ll ever change the fact that if you’ve got a city as international as London it is always going to have a property premium.”
Part of the government’s plan to encourage economic growth has been to devolve more power from Westminster, on the assumption that greater local control over decision making will bring stronger economic growth in Britain’s cities than top-down decisions made in Whitehall. The question is whether regional governments will resist housing development plans where these generate local opposition.
“My experience is that local authorities are ambitious with their local areas. I appreciate that there are examples (of developments) from the very best to the not so good,” he said, but this has not prevented a pickup in development. In the aftermath of the crash of 2008, he said, “there weren’t enough people producing bricks and the raw materials you need to build houses.” Last year, according to Lewis there was a record number of home approvals: 253,000 homes approved over a 12 month period, though not all of these will necessarily be built.
Lewis says that almost all councils have development plans, setting out the homes that they plan to build. “Areas that have not done that by 2017—we will make sure it happens for them because communities need that confidence and support of having a local plan.”