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A tale of incompetence

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

Football fans in particular are renowned for repeatedly chanting “You don’t know what you’re doing!” at referees, managers, owners and other figures of authority they deem inept and no longer up to the job.

The chant may well be applicable to prime minister Theresa May whose struggle to retain any sense of authority within her own party, let alone with the wider public and her counterparts across the continent, continues to be well documented.

Ms May has repeatedly shown herself to be sufficiently astute to identity the major problems and injustices of the day but whatever solutions and she and her ministers devise comes across as hapless or inadequate. A charitable assessment might be that the straitjackets of austerity, Brexit and dependence on the Democratic Unionist Party for a parliamentary majority would leave any resident of Number 10 unsure what they should be doing.

Housing is a case in point.

The issue featured prominently in Ms May’s spluttering speech to the Conservative party conference, having been the main focus for the communities secretary days earlier.

The general message (in case we didn’t know) is the country needs to build more homes, and different types at that.

The argument is well understood, but how we should go about building those homes is not.

Councils have been arguing for a long time now that they need to be given greater freedoms to borrow money to build, but the beancounters at the Treasury are not so keen to increase public sector debt.

Without that, councils are instead left with bidding for a share of ‘insignificant’ pots of cash knowing that whatever they get will go nowhere near to solving the crisis currently gripping the country.

Meanwhile, ministers are keeping a close eye on councils which have yet to adopt a local plan. With the latest official figures showing there are 101 local authorities without one there’s not so much a naughty corner but a whole field.

Statistics such as this one are often used by ministers to accuse councils of holding back development.

There’s no doubt some councils have been slow/are reluctant to go through the arduous process of producing a local plan, but those without one are actually at risk of unwanted development as the national planning policy framework’s “presumption in favour of sustainable development” takes precedence. The idea that no housing is being built in areas without a local plan is a bit of a red herring.

Housing minister Alok Sharma told LGC today that the government is considering withholding new homes bonus funding from councils which “aren’t planning effectively” for housing in their areas.

This is not so much like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but trying to use a sledgehammer to blow up a bouncy castle – it’s the wrong tool for the wrong job.

In fact, withholding cash from the sector the government now recognises it needs to help build the country out of the housing crisis seems completely illogical. The tool so many authorities crave - genuinely new freedom to build council housing - continues to be largely withheld.

So much for joined-up thinking. In fact, one has to question if there is much thinking going on at all.

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