The Government’s belated new plans are all very well, but will hardly make a dent, given population pressures
Michael Gove fears that, if young people are unable to own their own properties, they will abandon democracy and fall into the clutches of extremists and autocrats. The Housing Secretary, who has had an almost unbroken tenure in the Cabinet since 2010, frets about the paucity of affordable housing and the impact this is having, as though it just recently became a problem. If only he had been in a position to do something about it these past 14 years.
With an election looming, ministers now profess their deep sensitivity to the issues that are most likely to determine its outcome, yet are strangely in denial about their own role in bringing these circumstances about. Housing, or the lack of it, has been a potent political matter for 30 years or more without any discernible improvement. The Government’s target of building 300,000 new homes a year has never been achieved and was recently dropped.
Mr Gove has now come up with a new package that is somehow supposed to reverse, in a few short months, the failures of the past three decades. It includes an extra £3 billion in low-cost loans to developers to build 20,000 more affordable homes, which is just a fraction of what is needed.
He is also extending the law allowing commercial buildings to be converted into homes without planning permission, to apply to shops and offices of any size. In London, that could create another 27,000 new homes, though they would need to be converted and may not come cheap.
There will be a presumption on councils to “turbocharge” building on urban brownfield sites. Why has this not been done before and why is it restricted to 20 of the country’s biggest towns? It is not as though the idea is a new one. Back in 2014, when the Coalition was battling to reform planning laws to build more in the countryside, there was a policy of “brownfield first”.
But while there are plenty of urban sites ripe for reclamation, it is more expensive and risky for builders because of the remedial costs of preparing and even decontaminating the area. Back in 2014, the Government proposed to offer cash incentives to encourage more homes in towns and cities instead of the countryside. Ten years on, it is not only reheating the same plans but even carrying out a consultation exercise.
What has happened in the meantime? Where was the national scheme to expedite the clean-up of brownfield sites, or have I missed it? In America, partnerships have been forged between environmental firms and insurance companies to underwrite the decontamination of distressed properties and limit exposure to pollution lawsuits. We should have done the same.
Similarly, the conversion of office buildings could have been speeded up, though more have become available since the pandemic. Since 2015, more than 20,000 homes have been delivered in London through existing permitted development rights, turning smaller offices over to residential use. Net-zero laws may release more as commercial letters struggle to meet the cost of energy ratings.
But there are planning, structural and viability obstacles to converting office buildings, such as adhering to residential space standards, which not all are able to accommodate. None of these ideas will even dent the housing crisis.
There is clear merit in the revived approach because it is in urban areas that most homes are needed, especially among the young people that Mr Gove is so concerned about. However, they face other difficulties not even touched upon.
Thousands of young first-time buyers are trapped in flats they cannot sell because they require re-cladding to meet overly zealous rules introduced after the Grenfell Tower fire. Would-be buyers are unable to raise loans until certification is granted. This needs to be sorted out as a matter of urgency. Stamp duty should be cut or abolished to loosen up the market, especially for those seeking to downsize.
More lenders need to relax deposit rules because saving enough money is often beyond the ability of many would-be buyers, even if they can afford the mortgage. Instead, they pay extortionate rents – which might be pushed up even further if landlords leave the market because of Mr Gove’s Renters’ Reform Bill now before Parliament.
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