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Stewart Jackson MP: Our Housing Policies are bold but are they enough?

Jackson Stewart Stewart Jackson MP was Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government 2008-10 and is Vice President of the Local Government Association and a member of the Board of Management of the New Local Government Network.

It's certainly the case that the DCLG Ministerial team have hit the ground running since the General Election. Eric Pickles and his colleagues have set the agenda and made the weather in local government - and left Labour floundering in their wake.

The commitment to localism runs through each announcement as a defining ideology, consistent with Eric's long held philosophy.

Last week's announcement on council tax revaluations (there won't be any!) follows hard on from announcements on getting rid of street clutter, spending transparency and superfluous bye-laws, scrapping the Regional Spatial Strategies, the Standards Board, Tenants Services Authority and the Audit Commission, tackling garden grabbing and wasteful public sector lobbying as well as relaunching a national swaps scheme for social housing tenants and reviewing "local connections" in housing allocations.

If ever there was a round peg in a round hole then it's Housing Minister Grant Shapps. Not only is he completely on top of his brief but he's a fluent and persuasive advocate for a more active and pragmatic approach to homelessness and a good media performer to boot.

Which is just as well... because the housing brief will be one of the most challenging portfolios both for the department and for our government.

House building in 2009 was at its lowest level since 1924 and its clear to even the most blinkered Labour partisan that the Regional Spatial Strategies failed to get even close to their building targets in every year bar one since 1997. As Conservatives, we should be concerned too, that the tide is ebbing on owner occupation and that last week's figures on Right to Buy showed that RTB sales were the lowest ever, at just 3,100 units last year.

That being so, the promised New Homes Bonus, to be enshrined in a new Localism Bill in this Parliamentary session, possibly poses a number of philosophical and practical challenges for Conservatives.

Firstly, it has become an article of faith across all parties (perhaps with the exception of the Greens) that we need more homes, of all sorts, to tackle burgeoning local housing waiting lists and the thousands in temporary accommodation bequethed to us by Labour and that certainly is the case - but the question is "how many"?

We simply don't know.

The analysis of precise need, reflecting demographic changes such as divorce, single parent families, an ageing population and (possibly) lower immigration, has not really moved on since the Barker Report of 2004 and before that, the deeply flawed Sustainable Communities Plan, borne of John Prescott's ODPM empire in 2003, which gave us, inter alia, Eco Towns. So we have a rough cumulative snapshot from each local authority but no robust and topical empirical data across England and Wales.

Secondly, housebuilding in this country seems destined to be framed as a monochrome choice between owner occupation and the social rented sector - with a still under-developed "intermediate" sector (more of that later) and specifially, an almost non-existent provision of REITs - that is Real Estate Investment Trusts. As a result of arcane legal and financial rules in the UK, the leveraging of private capital into the private rented sector in any meaningful way, has - unlike many European housing markets - been stymied over the years, thus restricting choice to working people who may prefer renting high quality housing to owner occupation.

The third and most thorny issue brings us to a debate about the limits of localism. The New Homes Bonus will give a fiscal incentive to local authorities to build more homes via council tax matched funding - and more particularly, a greater financial boost for social housing. This is certainly a better and more localist strategy than the discredited Regional Sopatial Strategies.

But what if local authorities - even Conservative ones - perhaps driven by their officers' priorities or weak civic leadership or an outdated commitment to big housing number targets, for instance, fail to step up to the plate and instead go for the fast buck - lots more social rented housing, low quality flats on unsuitable sites - merely to pocket the cash in a period of very difficult financial climate? What if they disregard the need to provide larger family homes and what if they ignore the demand for and availability of shared ownership (or intermediate) housing, such as shared equity schemes and key worker schemes, promoted so successfully by the Moat Housing Association and others?

Whilst Grant Shapps has quite rightly and not before time, highlighted the often bloated remuneration packages of senior housing association managers, they still wield enormous power and influence at local level in what is often a monoplistic market in many parts of the country.

Are we also to improve the transparency and openness of Registered Social Landlords (RSLs), bodies which are, after all, exempted from the Freedom of Information Act?

Finally, housing associations and local authorities have, I believe a duty to tackle the scourge of institutionalised welfare dependency and given that between 50% and 70% of social housing tenants are not in paid work (depending on which part of the country individuals live), it would be foolish surely of any Conservative-led government to facilitate the continuation of a system that continues to entrench and embed welfarism through the state provision of housing without building in a requirement to provide real choice in housing tenure and a mix of housing provision, rather than just social rented accommodation.

I do not assume that even a majority of local councils will take the path of least resistance but the legislation coming forward in the next year should not only give them greater freedom and autonomy but allow that same freedom to those on their housing waiting lists - many of whom still aspire to own their own homes as much as their predecessors did almost thirty years ago with the inception of Right to Buy under Margaret Thatcher.

Over to you Grant and Eric!


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