Time to take politics out of housing with cross-party group

By Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE, co-founder of property development training company propertyCEO

The modern era of Doctor Who kicked off in 2005, and since then we’ve had eight—soon to be nine—versions of the Doctor (if you include the War Doctor and the Fugitive Doctor). In those 18 years, there have been twenty Ministers of State for Housing. At the time of writing, the current incumbent, Lee Rowley, is the David Tennant of the bunch; it’s his second time being cast in the role. First time round he lasted just 48 days – guess who gave him the job. Is this kind of turnover really in the best interests of a nation in need of so many new homes? Does it make us feel that finding solutions to our housing issues is really being taken seriously?

Now none of these ministers have ignored the problem completely—they have all had plenty to say about the subject—but have we seen them change anything in a meaningful way?

Housing is a tough nut to crack

Let’s consider the scale of the problem. Both main political parties have been talking about the need to be building 300,000 new homes each year. If that sounds like a lot, it is. The total number of homes in Oxfordshire is 275,000, and building a small county’s worth of homes each year is no small task. And it’s not just the actual construction that we need to consider as these homes need to be where people want to live, and they need to have appropriate facilities and connections.

The New Towns Act 1946 reflected the need for post-war reconstruction but also acknowledged that simply adding to London’s sprawl wasn’t the answer. Instead, we saw a total of 27 new towns emerge, including the likes of Stevenage, Crawley, Bracknell, Hemel Hempstead, Peterlee, and Runcorn. Milton Keynes was one of the later creations and went on to become the largest with some 117,000 households today.

England’s biggest new town since Milton Keynes is Northstowe, near Cambridge. Here around 1,200 homes have been built out of a planned 10,000, although some six years after the first house was built, it still has no shop, pub, doctor’s surgery, or café. It does have a post box.

Despite its growing pains, Northstowe serves to underline the scale of the challenge. The village/town is on a 20-year journey to reach its 10,000th home, yet we need the equivalent of 30 Northstowes to be built every year if we’re to meet the housing target. And that’s no mean feat, even if you had lots of places to put them all; places where nobody minds you building a new town.

What next?

The simple truth is that everyone would quite like the housing crisis to be solved, but few are happy to have new houses built near them. We may like to think differently, but most of us are NIMBYs at heart, and as many local MPs will confirm, there will always be folk willing to get well and truly exercised if you try and build pretty much anything, anywhere.

The next general election can be no later than 25 working days after 17 December 2024 when parliament will be automatically dissolved. So, at some point between now and 28 January 2025 we will be asked to go to our polling stations. And in that time, we will hear a lot of talking from all parties about housing. But will we hear anything different? Will someone from one side recognise that the other lot may have the beginnings of a good idea? Will there be any admission of common ground?

When you need to make difficult decisions, particularly when you risk alienating some of the voting population, then party politics usually gets in the way. Politicians’ thoughts turn to the polling booth rather than solving the problem at hand. This is because the biggest issue with the housing crisis is that it can’t be solved within a single parliamentary term. Five years simply isn’t long enough; it will have to be a 10-20 year plan, minimum.

Changing the game

In my view, there is a relatively simple solution. Take housing out of the political agenda and establish a cross-party group that will be responsible for recommending a solution and then implementing it. In this way, the housing agenda is removed from the short-term party politicking that has seen so little progress, and instead becomes a long-term solution that all parties have signed up to, with an agreement that the implementation does not get derailed, irrespective of any change of government.

There will always be some members of the public ready to be outraged no matter what is proposed. It won’t be easy to get everyone on board. But no significant change has ever come easily. Ultimately, we need to be in a place where we’re not pinning our hopes on things being better the next time the Minister of State for Housing regenerates.