Many have called for a cross-party approach to Brexit, but why stop there? Britain’s housing shortage is acute, and history proves that when parties work together on housebuilding, progress can be madeby Edward Douglas / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
It is easy to dismiss Theresa May’s recent calls for cross-party collaboration on policy as a cynical political ploy, and many commentators have. But what is undeniable is that the UK is facing critical challenges on Brexit, social care and housing. All of these require big solutions, and a minority government lacks the political capacity needed to reach them alone.
That’s why we have seen calls from Nicola Sturgeon, John Major and others for a cross-party commission on Brexit. Similarly, on social care, rumours circulated that Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb was being lined up to lead something similar—before he was elected chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee.
So far, there has been less focus on how a such an approach could deliver the homes we need. The impact of the housing crisis is well-known by now, but it bears repeating. After housing costs, low and middle income households have lower incomes today than they did in 2003; the social contract that says if you work hard you will prosper is breaking down as home ownership has fallen to a 30 year low; and despite increasingly strict criteria around social housing eligibility, 1.3m people sit on waiting lists.
This is not politically, socially or economically sustainable. But we need only look at the postwar period, when the major political parties committed to delivering new homes—and housebuilding reached levels not seen before or since—to know that such an approach offers a way forward.
The focus of any cross-party housing commission would need to be on solutions—what we don’t need is another inquiry into the problem. The list of recent cross-party reports on housing is substantial; major reports from the Communities and Local Government Committee and the Lords Economic Affairs Committee chief among them. Setting up a new commission to do this work would risk replication and delay. Instead, we need debate and discussion to build consensus on solutions.
“The commission could invite sector bodies, research institutes and think tanks to pitch ideas”
Significant agreement already exists. What sticks out from the election manifestos is that all parties committed themselves in different ways to a greater role for government in housebuilding. We also have broad agreement on where we need to go—the Conservatives outlined plans to increase building rates to 250,000 a year, whilst Labour pledged to build 100,000 council and housing association homes a year. The private sector has built an average of 150,000 homes a year over the last few decades, so these pledges are in truth roughly equivalent.
A cross-party commission should consider how those 100,000 or so homes can be built. All options should be on the table, and the aim should be to build on agreement that already exists. That’s where ResPublica’s recent report, in which we outlined the case for a National Housing Fund, comes in. Over the last 12 months, we have worked with leading housing associations and property management company JLL. The report showed how the government could invest to deliver at least 40,000 homes a year and bring with that substantial economic and social benefits, whilst supporting small developers, councils and housing associations to build more. It has support from figures across the sector and from MPs of all major parties.
It’s not the only idea out there but it does speak to the priorities both parties have for housing over this parliament. The commission could invite sector bodies, research institutes and think tanks to pitch ideas and identify those that could be supported by all sides.
Britain faces a set of challenges on a scale that most in Westminster have not seen before. Between Brexit, the social care crisis and the housing shortage, the well-being and prosperity of the entire country now and over the decades to come is at stake.
What we need more than ever is a sober and humble politics that delivers lasting solutions. In 1943, it was possible to set up a Ministry of Town and Country Planning to plan housebuilding and new towns at the height of a world war. Then, as now, it was incumbent upon those elected to represent us to act responsibly in the national interest.