On 17 December, five days after the electorate took to the polls, I participated in a panel on what the new government’s policy means for housing.
For the first time since 2010, the government has a sizeable majority. There is a distinct desire from the sector that this will translate into action.
With the continuation of the Conservatives in power, we will not see radical change but the changes won’t be insignificant.
Five key takeaways
1. The new funding model will increase risk
The government’s funding model is similar to before, but the Conservatives have a clear focus on home ownership that could limit the subsidies available for other tenures.
The government will need to put something on the table that genuinely supports progressive home ownership, after many buyers have struggled to staircase out of shared ownership.
It will also need to make the cash available to deliver the infrastructure needed to unlock housing – from roads and schools to GP surgeries. Infrastructure is expensive and without cash, there is a real risk that the amount of affordable housing will reduce over time if viability is used to fund infrastructure as a priority.
There is promise of a new Single Housing Infrastructure Fund, but local authorities will need to put the right skills and resources in place to administer it and make sure it gets spent on time.
2. Partnerships will continue
Delivery will continue through three main groups: housing associations, which have risen in importance in recent times; councils, which can construct in their own right but have often partnered with local developers and housing associations; and private developers.
There has been a growth in partnerships and this will no doubt continue, driven by the need to pool resources to deliver the government’s plans.
This is particularly important for smaller, community-based housing associations. Developing sites in rural areas could become more challenging, owing to the government’s focus on significant regeneration in cities and towns and its commitment to protect the green belt.
The panel also considered whether the Conservatives’ success in securing swing votes in the North of England could see more of a focus here. I think there is a continuing opportunity for the sector to partner with conurbations that are keen to actively regenerate. If the Conservatives are true to their word, local government should have more of a say in shaping its future.
3. New rights for tenants
I am expecting to see new ways of giving tenants more dignity, respect, fair treatment and a say in rights in affordable housing. This could include more rigorous standards for things like fire safety, repairs and maintenance; league tables could come back on the agenda; linking funding of social housing to performance; and making tenant representation on boards mandatory.
4. Planning needs sufficient resources
The government has pledged to simplify the planning process for the sector and SMEs. This could make a considerable difference, but the sector hopes that “reform” doesn’t just mean “tinkering” which could increase the amount of red tape.
It remains to be seen if the government will expand permitted development rights, allowing more building works and changes of use to be carried out without having to make a planning application.
Whatever ideas and systems are put in place, planning teams will need consider what skills and resources are needed to deliver the right outcomes and maintain high quality housing.
5. Continuing focus on modular
The government clearly intends that modular construction will be an important component of new schemes. The panel concluded that this is an important innovation, but it is still early days and a lot of these solutions are considerably more expensive than traditional methods.
With the government’s green agenda and need to support different industries post-Brexit, it could look to subsidise this to help overcome the cost barrier and fund more research.
The government’s target of building one million homes over the next five years equates to a lower annual rate of delivery than last year. Does this mean this government will be more realistic?
As previous governments have demonstrated, the sector needs long-term support to invest in schemes over a long period of time and all groups will need to be innovative in how they deliver.
The panel agreed that the sector needs to promote itself as a key part of the UK’s infrastructure. Now is the time to make the undeniable case for funding and demonstrate it is capable of delivering.