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Don't believe Theresa May's housing hype

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A guest briefing from LGC’s sister title Construction News.

Is there any part of the industry that has seen more false dawns over the past decade than the housing sector?

I ask this following last week’s unprecedented visit to the National Housing Federation’s annual conference by the prime minister, where she gave a speech making all the right noises.

Theresa May got a standing ovation for a speech full of platitudes, faint praise, promises to understand social housing needs, and an announcement of £2bn in extra cash.

Unfortunately, promises made on the stump are often too good to be true.

While this announcement was billed as genuinely new cash rather than recycled spending, it still comes with a catch: the £2bn will only be available from 2022.

Call me a cynic, but if a company chief executive stood up in front of their staff and said “Great news: you’re all getting a raise… in four years’ time”, how many of those employees are going to whoop in delight?

Following Ms May’s announcement, how many development managers will call a meeting to plan how to use this new cash? None. Because there’s absolutely no guarantee this money will ever actually be available. You might as well place a bet on the 2022 Grand National.

No parliament can bind its successor, and the PM’s promises are empty because she cannot guarantee she’ll be heading up the government for the next decade. Right now you’d be brave to bet on Ms May surviving beyond Christmas, let alone 2022.

Even then, this £2bn has been pledged for a period of time for which departmental budgets have not even been set out yet. Ms May knows that we can have no idea how this money will fit in with the overall social housing settlement for 2022-28, or how it will compare with the £9bn in total funding committed for 2015-21 – not to mention the pre-2010 level of £3bn-a-year.

This all falls far short of the PM’s claims to be providing clarity for the social and affordable housing sector.

Of course, the government has also broken promises before.

At the NHF conference in 2015, the then communities and local government minister Greg Clark struck a historic deal with the sector that opened up housing associations to right-to-buy. This meant housing association stock was set to be sold off for the first time.

The sector agreed to the plan, which has since been dropped, because it feared what the then Cameron government would devise if it did not. The government promised that homes sold through the revitalised right-to-buy would be replaced on a one-for-one basis. New figures show this has not happened – in fact, fewer than a third of the 60,000 homes sold by councils since 2012 have been replaced, mainly due to a lack of funds.

It often feels that the housing sector suffers from a form of collective amnesia, happy simply to be given attention and lap up the warm words. 

An announcement of real cash to build real homes right now would be welcome, but this is not it. We shouldn’t let the government off the hook for giving out meaningless platitudes. 

By Tim Clark from LGC’s sister title Construction News

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