THE Conservative Party’s election manifesto makes great play of two national obsessions – Brexit and home ownership – but lacks any radical departure that might seriously herald a solution to the UK’s chronic housing crisis.
There’s little essentially new; much of the housing is amounts to a compendium of prior ministerial announcements. There’s the proposals to reform the national model of shared ownership, for one; a pledge on leasehold reform for another.
What is likely to be one source of dismay for industry figures is the manifesto’s pledge to continue with Right to Buy of council homes – and indeed its ‘voluntary’ extension to cover housing association properties; a flagship policy from David Cameron’s 2015 general election campaign.
There are other measures presented in the manifesto, which was launched yesterday in Telford, such as the pledge to enable councils to use planning gains from developers to provide homes for sale to local people; the prices discounted “in perpetuity” by up to a third.
Presumably, we shouldn’t be calling them ‘starter homes’ – another Cameron-era legacy recently revealed by the National Audit Office as ‘non-starter homes’ as none had ever actually been built.
Then there’s a pledge seeking to woo hard-pressed private renters: the Better Deal for Renters, as it is called, which the party claims will make things fairer for landlords and tenants alike. One of the things it proposes is to scrap no-fault evictions.
Overall, it has put home ownership front and centre of a Conservative government’s focus, much as it has been – bar Theresa May’s brief flirtation with social housing – since the Conservatives returned to government in 2010.
That said, the manifesto does reiterate Johnson’s promise to bring forward a Social Housing White Paper, setting out “further measures” to empower tenants and support the “continued supply” of social homes.
“This will include measures to provide greater redress, better regulation and improve the quality of social housing,” the document says.
However, as recent official figures released by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government show, last year only 6,287 of the 56,485 “affordable” homes completed were actually of the social kind. Given that, some may not expect “continued supply” to amount to much.
There’s more on the “affordable” front, however, with the manifesto pledging a future Conservative government to renew the Affordable Homes Programme. It also promises action to tackle homelessness.
“This is a key part of our efforts to prevent people from falling into homelessness, along with fully enforcing the Homelessness Reduction Act,” the manifesto adds. “We will also end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament by expanding successful pilots and programmes such as the Rough Sleeping Initiative and Housing First, and working to bring together local services to meet the health and housing needs of people sleeping on the streets.”
Social housing gets more direct – and detailed – treatment when it comes to energy efficiency. The manifesto promises an investment of £6.3 billion to improve the energy efficiency of 2.2 million “disadvantaged” homes, which it claims will reduce tenants’ bills by as much as £750 a year. This would take the form of two schemes:
- £3.8 billion Social Housing Decarbonisation Scheme: This scheme would focus on improving the insulation provided in two million social homes, reducing energy bills by an average of £160 a year
- £2.5 billion Home Upgrade Grants: This programme would replace boilers, provide insulation and in some cases replace energy systems wholesale. It would cover 200,000 homes, providing an average annual saving of £750 a year. It would cover costs up to £12,000 and apply to fuel poor households in both the private rented and social sectors
Reacting to the manifesto’s publication, homelessness charity Crisis proved less than enamoured by the Conservative Party’s offer.
“It’s deeply disappointing to see the Conservative manifesto fall short of the mark when it comes to ending homelessness, in all its forms, once and for all,” said Jon Sparkes, the charity’s chief executive.
“While the pledges to end rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament and expand crucial programmes such as Housing First are welcome, it’s very troubling to see no firm commitments to invest in housing benefit so it truly covers the cost of people’s rents, or any firm targets in place to build the social homes our country is crying out for.
“Making sure that everyone has a safe and secure home benefits us all. That’s why it’s essential that whoever forms the next government must put in place a plan that tackles all forms of homelessness, alongside the investment needed, if we are to live in a society where no one is forced to sleep on our streets or spend years on end trapped in unsuitable hostels and B&Bs.”
Kate Henderson, chief rxecutive of the National Housing Federation, said: “It’s encouraging that the Conservative Party manifesto includes proposals on tackling the housing crisis. We welcome the commitment to renew the Affordable Homes Programme at the next fiscal event – we have been stressing the urgent need for certainty here, so we’re glad to see that being reflected in the Conservative manifesto. The commitment to bring forward a Social Housing White Paper is something we are pushing for in our general election campaign, and it’s good that this has also been recognised.
“We will work with the next government to conclude and evaluate the Voluntary Right to Buy pilot in the Midlands. We think it’s important that this is done before any further pilots begin. For us it will be a success only if it helps tenants onto the housing ladder without any net loss of social housing.”
Clive Docwra, managing director of property and construction consultancy McBains said: “The Conservatives are promising to meet housing demand by delivering at least a million homes in the next five years – and 300,000 a year by the mid-2020s – but the fact is those targets will remain a pipe dream without radical action on the supply side.
“The government’s record on starter homes is not good. Earlier this month a report from the National Audit Office found that a pledge to build 200,000 new starter homes for first time buyers in England had failed to produce a single property.
“The private sector alone has been unable to deliver 240,000 homes a year since the 1930s, and in the years when housebuilding has exceeded 300,000 a year it’s largely because councils were building more homes – and there’s no detail, beyond the pledge of a White Paper, on how the Conservatives would kick-start housebuilding by local authorities.
“The Tories would also be better advised to look other reasons why we’re failing on housebuilding target, so the promise to speed up the slow planning process is welcome, even if it has an element of déjà vu. We also need to free up more land to build on. For example, freeing up a small proportion of land classed as greenbelt – land that is actually scrubland, former brownfield sites, or vacant land with little value – could release substantial areas for new housing.
“Meanwhile, the industry as a whole is also coping with acute skills shortages as a result of many high-skilled tradespeople from abroad who have left the sector as a result of doubts over their employment status after Brexit. Promising millions of homes will never happen unless we have the workforce to build them.”
Main Image: Then newly installed Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairs his first Cabinet meeting in Downing Street, 25 July 2019. Open Government Licence.