Reflections on the prime minister’s appearance at the Housing 2019 conference this week
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Put yourself into the mind of Theresa May for a minute, if you can. Eager not to be remembered solely for making a dog’s dinner of Brexit,
Mrs May is hoping that the housing reforms she has embarked on in the last 18 month will help to fill the final chapters of her autobiography with more than just self-pity over Brexit.
Her 15 minute speech at the CIH housing conference yesterday, which she squeezed in before jetting off to the G20 summit to offer an olive branch to Russian president Vladimir Putin, came across as a last-ditch attempt to cement her housing legacy. Mrs May began by pointing out how she has kept to the Conservative manifesto promise of 2015 to build a million homes by 2020. “Critics said it wouldn’t happen, but it’s happening… By the autumn, one million homes will have been added to our national supply in five years.” she said- but then couldn’t resist a dig at London mayor Sadiq Khan. “The notable exception is London, where housing policy in the hands of the mayor - the number of homes created there has fallen by a staggering 20%,” she added.
It struck me watching her up on stage that just as Thatcher is now remembered for her convictions on the right of working people to be able to own their own home through right to buy, Mrs May wants to be remembered for championing the rights of tenants, as part of her ‘burning injustices’ agenda – even if that means having a dig at previous Tory administrations.
“Too many governments, including I am not afraid to say the one in which I served as home secretary, have concentrated solely on boosting home ownership, as if supporting those struggling to find a home to rent was somehow contrary to such an aim,” she said. “Under this government, that attitude has changed… So yes I want to see as many people as possible enjoying the benefits of home ownership, but that should not stop us working to improve renting too. And this government has taken real action to do that.”
The idea that Mrs May will be remembered for improving the plight of social tenants might cause some social housing campaigners to choke violently on their lattes.
After all, only 6,434 social homes were built last year, which seems at face value to be a pitiful number given the need.
But unabashed, Mrs May went on to roll off examples of what she deems to be policy success - capping tenant deposits and demolished letting fees, putting £2bn of extra money into the affordable housing programme with a provision for building homes for social rent, scrapping the so-called pay to stay policy - which would have abolished lifetime tenancies for new council tenants - and most memorably, abolishing the HRA cap.
“We are seeing results. Liverpool is building council homes for the first time in three decades,” she said.
Most recently, Mrs May has also announced a consultation on bringing to an end the practise of so called no fault evictions, repealing Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act, will be published shortly - with a view to introducing legislation later this year, she told us.
Two years on from Grenfell, it is obvious the tragedy has had a massive impact on shaping government policy. Eamon McGoldrick, chief executive, NFA told a different audience at the conference that Grenfell Utd is meeting the government every fortnight. “In the past, housing ministers came and went and nobody held them to account in this way,” he said. Mrs May said that Grenfell shone a “much needed light” on the issues facing social housing right across the country.
The PM claims that through the social housing green paper (an action plan for which she said would be published in September), the government will be delivering a “once in a generation” package of reforms and support for social housing – many of which appear to have been inspired by the lessons of Grenfell.
“This social housing green paper must not simply be an intellectual exercise highlighting the nature of the problem, it must be the practical first step in actually fixing it,” she said.
“It will include the creation of a stronger consumer regulation regime for social housing and enhance tenants rights, making it easier to enforce them, and changes to the way complaints are resolved so that tenants know exactly how to raise concerns. They can be confident that their voices will be heard and acted on. We will be empowering residents still further, by requiring landlords to demonstrate how they have engaged with their tenants.”
Mrs May also revealed that the Ministry of Housing, Communties & Local Government will shortly be launching a consultation on environment reforms in new build homes, with a future homes standard that will give all new homes world leading levels of energy efficiency by 2025.
The PM expressed pride in having appointed the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission and says she is looking forward to reading the interim report next month, adding that “the quality of housing must not be compromised in the drive to increase building rates”. This remark echoes comments by Kit Malthouse (whom she described fawningly as her “excellent” housing minister) the day before who said “as we are stepping up the [housing] supply, my concerns have turned more and more towards quality and beauty”.
It is rather hard to reconcile this lofty rhetoric with the Conservative policy of permitted development rights. Asked by LGC about the policy, Mr Malthouse refused to rule out further permitted development rights to build on top of existing dwellings, despite concerns that such developments would block out natural light and potentially be unsafe. He said that an announcement will be made about later this year.
Of course, in a way, what Mrs May says must be taken with a pinch of salt as soon she will be out of a job and we shall perhaps be led by Boris Johnson, a man who once apparently commented that building more social homes creates more Labour voters.
In a way, it was rather pitiful to see the woman with the most powerful job in the country “calling for” national space standards to be adopted for new build homes. “It will be up to my successor in Downing Street to deal with this,” she grudgingly added.
In a sign of how unappreciated she is feeling, Mrs May admitted that “There has been no single big bang moment, no one measure to grab the front pages and silence the critics. But quietly, step by step and day by day, we have been working to resolve the housing crisis.”
What surprised me more than anything was how loud the applause was for her as she took to and left the stage, and how people were queueing 45 minutes prior to the session before hers, just to make sure they got a seat. Perhaps that’s because they knew it would would be one of the last public speeches she would ever give in office.
I’m not at all convinced Mrs May will be remembered for her ‘radical’ housing reforms, but we should give her some credit for giving more rights to tenants moving housebuilding up a gear and ending the previous government’s myopic focus on home ownership. Whether anyone really will remember her for that after Brexit has finished unleashing its fury, only time will tell.
Jessica Hill, senior reporter