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A change of direction in housing policy

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

“Nothing has changed! Nothing has changed!” an exasperated Theresa May claimed during the general election campaign despite the fact a ‘clarification’ had actually changed the Conservatives’ now much-maligned policy to reform the way social care services are funded.

After returning a reduced majority, Ms May avoided the temptation to repeat that mantra as she stood looking dejected on the steps of 10 Downing Street last Friday.

Since then, Parliament has been in chaos. A leadership challenge was mooted and then quelled (for now, anyway); Ms May’s two closest aides *cough* ‘resigned’; with Ms May’s authority in tatters Cabinet ministers stood still instead of being reshuffled; while a deal between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party looks set to stall the Queen’s Speech.

The general election’s outcome has raised concerns policies directly affecting local government will either struggle to get the attention they require, will be delayed or simply wither in the wilderness.

However, there are reasons to believe that housing is one area in which there could be some continuity. 

When Gavin Barwell lost his seat the sector sighed – he had been a housing minister who understood the scale of the housing challenge facing the country and saw a role for councils in alleviating the problem. A couple of days later Theresa May appointed Mr Barwell as her new chief of staff, giving him a powerful role in setting the direction of overall government policy. That is potentially good news for housing, and local government in general, provided Ms May (and in turn Mr Barwell) stay in post long enough.

As LGC analysis this week shows, councils currently only build a tiny proportion of the number of homes built overall each year.

It’s not because councils aren’t trying. Some, like Woking BC, are really tackling housing issues in their areas by the scruff of the neck.

But many more homes are needed, even if councils are unlikely to return to the halcyon housebuilding days of the 1960s and 1970s anytime soon.

The election result has undoubtedly created confusion in many areas. But Mr Barwell established a clear new direction on housing policy which acknowledges that the Conservatives’ beloved private sector has not kept up with demand for housing and there is a role for the public sector including councils in meeting it. The strong and stable foundations of Mr Barwell’s new direction are likely to mean that it withstands the Tories’ loss of their majority.

The housing white paper, and to a lesser extent the Conservative manifesto, earmarked councils as having a greater role in building more homes, including social housing, in the future.

There are other reasons for optimism.

Sajid Javid, who said last year that housing was his top priority, has been reappointed communities secretary, while the need to build more homes is something all of the main political parties agree on.

There is no reason for that approach to discontinue, even if it did take five days after the general election result was announced for a new housing minister to be appointed.

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