Ros Altmann: What Ministers should do to ease the plight of small landlords

7 Jul

Baroness Altmann is a Conservative peer.

Around eleven million people in England live in private rented housing.  Covid-19 has caused considerable anxiety for many tenants who fear its impact on their finances and their ability to keep up rent payments for their current home.

I welcome the policies that stopped tenants being made homeless during the emergency lockdown. The Government rightly decided to suspend evictions in the rental market for a period of three months to provide security to tenants and to ensure that the lockdown worked, backed by a financial package of support for tenants who were struggling to continue paying their rent. This included the furlough scheme and increases to the Local Housing Allowance and Universal Credit.

The Government recently decided to extend the ban on evictions by a further two months, pending the outcome of a judge-led working group that is looking at how to protect those most at risk from Covid-19, while also ensuring landlords can regain possession of their properties in legitimate circumstances.

All these steps are welcome, and have contributed to the vast majority of tenants (90 per cent according to the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA)) being able to pay their rent as normal. It has given tenants a breathing space during this unprecedented national lockdown. But a blanket ban on all evictions is not without its victims.

After so many months, I do wonder whether the Conservatives need to do more to show support for some of the landlords (especially small ones who own only one or two properties).

Many may have been relying on rental income for their retirement or other purposes and are struggling to pay their own bills, while their tenants are not paying rent, or are causing damage and disturbance. Even in such cases, all landlords are currently powerless to take action to protect themselves.

Anti-social tenants who blight the lives of neighbours, communities, fellow tenants and landlords alike cause real distress.  As one tenant recently wrote on twitter: This is a total disaster. I’m living in a shared house with a nightmare tenant. We all want her gone, as does the landlady. Her anti-social behaviour is driving us and the neighbours up the wall. She was due to go on 1st July. I can’t put up with it for another two months.”

The current eviction ban, while protecting tenants, leaves many private or social landlords, especially those who had tenants building rent arrears prior to the lockdown, struggling.

Consider a buy-to-let landlord, who owns just one property, with a tenant who did not pay rent for a few months before lockdown and has not paid since. Having already had to wait to bring a case to court, and then faced delays with getting an order enforced (on average about 6 months) followed by five months of the repossessions ban, the landlord will have received no income for over a year.

Yet they must still meet costs such as licensing fees, insurance, and maybe even utility bills for the property. It is therefore hardly surprising that 29 per cent of landlords are reporting some degree of financial hardship according to the NRLA.

I believe the Government should now draw up plans for the coming months, once the eviction ban is lifted. Tenants who have struggled to pay their rent will be worried about their future whilst landlords with troublesome tenants or rent deficits will be looking for much-needed relief. The following framework of measures could show greater concern for the plight of small landlords, while also helping tenants who do their utmost to behave responsibly:

  • The Government should clearly re-state that tenants must, wherever possible, continue to pay their rent as normal. It is not realistic to suggest the Government should simply suspend the all rental payments because of the pandemic. Such suggestions reflect an assumption that all landlords are wealthy or large firms who can afford to receive no income from their properties. This is certainly not the case and denying people any income from their properties is unsustainable, and possibly illegal.
  • Government should offer landlords and tenants additional support, including mediation, to agree rent repayment plans where arrears have built as a result of the Covid outbreak. This would help prevent some repossession cases coming before the courts, which is important because sustaining tenancies wherever possible should be a priority.
  • Government should urgently consider Court reforms so that possession cases are heard more effectively and speedily. There is a huge backlog of cases and courts will struggle to meet the demand for hearings. This would, therefore, be an ideal time for major reforms, including a focus on modernisation, such as introducing online hearings and making better use of web based arbitration. Court reform is an essential part of ensuring the Government’s Renters’ Reform Bill works, and it has been well over a year since the consultation on developing a housing court closed, so a response is urgently needed.
  • Finally, we need clear plans to deal with the rental market if localised lockdowns are required to combat future Covid-19 outbreaks. The courts may, for example, want to pause repossession cases in those circumstances, but if this happens, landlords and tenants need clarity on the precise areas affected and the likely timeframes for any pause.

The private rented sector plays a vital part in housing the nation. Some seek to paint a picture of tenants and landlords in constant conflict, but in the vast majority of cases they have been working constructively to address the challenges of Covid-19. Once the immediate crisis measures are relaxed, the proposals I have outlined here could engender a sustainable balance between the rights of renters and of landlord. But Conservatives also need to bear in mind the political realities, and must avoid causing long-lasting problems for landlords.

Ryan Bourne: Sunak should not and cannot try today to restore pre-virus Britain. It’s gone – and we must now adapt.

7 Jul

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Rishi Sunak earned plaudits for his dealing with the immediate economic fallout from Covid-19. Yet today’s summer statement presents a thornier challenge than playing Emergency Santa, dishing out funds to keep businesses alive. For today requires taking steps to further facilitate the “normalisation” of economic life.

Boris Johnson waded into economics last week, arguing (rather conveniently) that the Coronavirus highlighted the need for his pre-pandemic “leveling-up” agenda. Exactly how Covid-19 proves the need for, say, HS2 is unclear. But underpinning the Prime Minister’s argument was an assumption that, post-lockdowns, we can get back to focusing on pre-virus priorities – in the Government’s case, state-led economic rebalancing.

Similar “back to our future” thinking underpins business representations ahead of this statement. From calls for taxpayer-financed high street spending vouchers, to VAT cuts for hard-hit sectors, the prevailing discourse appears to be “now the virus is less of a threat, let’s incentivise returning to normal activity,” with “normal” meaning “what happened in early March 2020.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m in the U.S. and so have been to this reopening BBQ before, but I bear bad news: while the UK can expect a relatively sharp bounce-back in things such as retail activity, “normalisation” will not and should not mean a return to the economy of March 2020.

Before a vaccine, consumers will go where they feel safe, businesses from restaurants to cinemas will be supply constrained by social distancing, and certain behaviors (from the demand shift from restaurants to supermarkets, to the supply shift to working from home) will partially remain. That will bring major reallocation costs: businesses will close and lay off workers, while other sectors grow.

It was understandable that the Chancellor, not knowing which businesses would be viable after lockdown, set up a furlough scheme to avoid companies and jobs perishing. This helped protect important “job-matching capital” and “firm-specific capital” – i.e. people doing jobs they are good at and firms as important bundles of productive relationships. But one risk was always that businesses would interpret support not as mere lockdown relief, but a commitment to ensure their survival through the whole pandemic.

Some aspects of the campaign for arts subsidies, rumblings by MPs for ongoing aerospace supply-chain support, and the Resolution Foundation’s gimmicky “high street vouchers” idea suggest that some now do believe the Government should support sectors, even after full re-openings, precisely because consumers would otherwise continue to reject them, preferring not to fly as much, attend as many in-person events, or go to fewer restaurants or stores.

This is a very different policy proposition. Attempting to keep the March 2020 economy preserved as some eternal truth would mean workers and funds not being where businesses and consumers actually value them given today’s circumstances, bringing large economic costs beyond the fiscal.

For example, if more professionals now work from home semi-permanently, then tastes will shift from buying lunches within cities to local delis, online, or at supermarkets. Hence why Pret is laying off workers.

But as Julian Jessop has said, the purpose of economic policy should not be to protect Pret jobs. What normalisation should instead mean is the return to a functioning market economy where the rise and fall of businesses depends on their ability to meet our wants and needs in today’s circumstances. Sunak’s aim, in other words, should now be “market-led adaptation to the virus.”

We want businesses to figure out how to serve us in safe, cost-effective ways. The alternative – having the government tilt activity towards our early 2020 preferences – would not only encourage activity worse from a public health risk perspective, but also inevitably subsidise much that would take place anyway.

So Sunak should today reject “painting by numbers Keynesianism” that sees industry spending collapses as holes taxpayers should help fill in. He should snub VAT cuts or vouchers. If, with the virus still around, people would rather spend money on food to cook at home, Netflix subscriptions, and a hot tub for the back garden over restaurants, cinemas, and trips to the Lake District, workers and capital should flow accordingly. Economic activity serves consumers, not vice versa.

That’s not to say government cannot make this process less painful. But we need to be clear about the challenge we face: a supply-side shock we hid with relief. New realities mean workers in the wrong jobs, businesses serving customers in the wrong ways, and capital in the wrong places. Government policy should focus on removing barriers that gum up businesses, landlords, workers and entrepreneurs adjusting.

Sunak appears to get this on the worker side. He is tapering the furlough scheme gradually to give businesses breathing room, but inevitably those with newly uneconomic business models will make some permanent layoffs.

It’s crucial to try to get workers reallocated into new roles quickly to avoid the scarring effects of unemployment. Direct financial incentives for new hiring, even beyond subsidies for traineeships trailed in the papers, would encourage this. The reported plans for expansions of jobcentre capabilities are important too to try to speed up the matching process of unemployed workers to new roles, as would re-training efforts be. Some U.S. states are rolling back licensing restrictions on people shifting to different jobs too. With child-care difficult to come by, now would be a good time to review the UK’s oppressive childcare regulations, for example.

Yet the Conservatives should do more to facilitate the adaptation of businesses as well. Repurposing premises to earn consumers’ confidence often requires upfront investments that the Chancellor should write-off entirely for the basis of tax, through full expensing of investment. The planning law reforms should have an eye to business activities too – if more out-of-town activity is demanded, let it bloom.

The case for allowing existing businesses and property owners more flexibility – on how they operate, opening hours, what premises can be used for etc– is overwhelming as well. With apologies to my Editor, when we are seriously discussing throwing billions at retailers such as John Lewis or Topshop through vouchers, it seems daft to consider it beyond the pale that such retailers open beyond 6pm on a Sunday. Give freedom to businesses to adjust to what customers want: what barriers exist to entrepreneurs developing drive-through cinemas, for example? These are the sorts of supply-side questions that should animate government.

As always with fiscal events, any financial support to industries will be heralded as ‘good news’  and absence of it denounced as throwing sectors to the wolves. But it’s time for Sunak to be bold and honest: his task is not to “normalise” activity by resuscitating the composition of the March 2020 economy, but to “normalise” the market-led economy that makes us rich by meeting our demands.

Ryan Bourne: Sunak should not and cannot try today to restore pre-virus Britain. It’s gone – and we must now adapt.

7 Jul

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Rishi Sunak earned plaudits for his dealing with the immediate economic fallout from Covid-19. Yet today’s summer statement presents a thornier challenge than playing Emergency Santa, dishing out funds to keep businesses alive. For today requires taking steps to further facilitate the “normalisation” of economic life.

Boris Johnson waded into economics last week, arguing (rather conveniently) that the Coronavirus highlighted the need for his pre-pandemic “leveling-up” agenda. Exactly how Covid-19 proves the need for, say, HS2 is unclear. But underpinning the Prime Minister’s argument was an assumption that, post-lockdowns, we can get back to focusing on pre-virus priorities – in the Government’s case, state-led economic rebalancing.

Similar “back to our future” thinking underpins business representations ahead of this statement. From calls for taxpayer-financed high stcororeet spending vouchers, to VAT cuts for hard-hit sectors, the prevailing discourse appears to be “now the virus is less of a threat, let’s incentivise returning to normal activity,” with “norma”l meaning “what happened in early March 2020.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m in the U.S. and so have been to this reopening BBQ before, but I bear bad news: while the UK can expect a relatively sharp bounce-back in things such as retail activity, “normalisation” will not and should not mean a return to the economy of March 2020.

Before a vaccine, consumers will go where they feel safe, businesses from restaurants to cinemas will be supply constrained by social distancing, and certain behaviors (from the demand shift from restaurants to supermarkets, to the supply shift to working from home) will partially remain. That will bring major reallocation costs: businesses will close and lay off workers, while other sectors grow.

It was understandable that the Chancellor, not knowing which businesses would be viable after lockdown, set up a furlough scheme to avoid companies and jobs perishing. This helped protect important “job-matching capital” and “firm-specific capital” – i.e. people doing jobs they are good at and firms as important bundles of productive relationships. But one risk was always that businesses would interpret support not as mere lockdown relief, but a commitment to ensure their survival through the whole pandemic.

Some aspects of the campaign for arts subsidies, rumblings by MPs for ongoing aerospace supply-chain support, and the Resolution Foundation’s gimmicky “high street vouchers” idea suggest that some now do believe the Government should support sectors, even after full re-openings, precisely because consumers would otherwise continue to reject them, preferring not to fly as much, attend as many in-person events, or go to fewer restaurants or stores.

This is a very different policy proposition. Attempting to keep the March 2020 economy preserved as some eternal truth would mean workers and funds not being where businesses and consumers actually value them given today’s circumstances, bringing large economic costs beyond the fiscal.

For example, if more professionals now work from home semi-permanently, then tastes will shift from buying lunches within cities to local delis, online, or at supermarkets. Hence why Pret is laying off workers.

But as Julian Jessop has said, the purpose of economic policy should not be to protect Pret jobs. What normalisation should instead mean is the return to a functioning market economy where the rise and fall of businesses depends on their ability to meet our wants and needs in today’s circumstances. Sunak’s aim, in other words, should now be “market-led adaptation to the virus.”

We want businesses to figure out how to serve us in safe, cost-effective ways. The alternative – having the government tilt activity towards our early 2020 preferences – would not only encourage activity worse from a public health risk perspective, but also inevitably subsidise much that would take place anyway.

So Sunak should today reject “painting by numbers Keynesianism” that sees industry spending collapses as holes taxpayers should help fill in. He should snub VAT cuts or vouchers. If, with the virus still around, people would rather spend money on food to cook at home, Netflix subscriptions, and a hot tub for the back garden over restaurants, cinemas, and trips to the Lake District, workers and capital should flow accordingly. Economic activity serves consumers, not vice versa.

That’s not to say government cannot make this process less painful. But we need to be clear about the challenge we face: a supply-side shock we hid with relief. New realities mean workers in the wrong jobs, businesses serving customers in the wrong ways, and capital in the wrong places. Government policy should focus on removing barriers that gum up businesses, landlords, workers and entrepreneurs adjusting.

Sunak appears to get this on the worker side. He is tapering the furlough scheme gradually to give businesses breathing room, but inevitably those with newly uneconomic business models will make some permanent layoffs.

It’s crucial to try to get workers reallocated into new roles quickly to avoid the scarring effects of unemployment. Direct financial incentives for new hiring, even beyond subsidies for traineeships trailed in the papers, would encourage this. The reported plans for expansions of jobcentre capabilities are important too to try to speed up the matching process of unemployed workers to new roles, as would re-training efforts be. Some U.S. states are rolling back licensing restrictions on people shifting to different jobs too. With child-care difficult to come by, now would be a good time to review the UK’s oppressive childcare regulations, for example.

Yet the Conservatives should do more to facilitate the adaptation of businesses as well. Repurposing premises to earn consumers’ confidence often requires upfront investments that the Chancellor should write-off entirely for the basis of tax, through full expensing of investment. The planning law reforms should have an eye to business activities too – if more out-of-town activity is demanded, let it bloom.

The case for allowing existing businesses and property owners more flexibility – on how they operate, opening hours, what premises can be used for etc– is overwhelming as well. With apologies to my Editor, when we are seriously discussing throwing billions at retailers such as John Lewis or Topshop through vouchers, it seems daft to consider it beyond the pale that such retailers open beyond 6pm on a Sunday. Give freedom to businesses to adjust to what customers want: what barriers exist to entrepreneurs developing drive-through cinemas, for example? These are the sorts of supply-side questions that should animate government.

As always with fiscal events, any financial support to industries will be heralded as ‘good news’  and absence of it denounced as throwing sectors to the wolves. But it’s time for Sunak to be bold and honest: his task is not to “normalise” activity by resuscitating the composition of the March 2020 economy, but to “normalise” the market-led economy that makes us rich by meeting our demands.

Shaun Bailey: The Tories shouldn’t be afraid of talking about social housing

7 Jul

Shaun Bailey is the MP for West Bromwich West.

I’ve been getting used to being quite a novelty. One of the new Conservative MPs from a traditionally working class, Labour area, and, more pertinently perhaps, one of the few Conservative MPs brought up in Social Housing.

Social housing saved me and my family when we were at our lowest. My Mum had just survived a torrid, abusive, relationship with my father. We spent a year living out of our car, sleeping on the sofas of relatives and not knowing where we would end up next.

My mum’s initial experience of social housing was a tough one. When we were (finally) given somewhere to live, after battling the local authority for over a year, the house my Mum was presented with was battered, dirty, and needed serious work to just make it habitable. My mum did what she’d always done; she knuckled down and she made it liveable. We eventually moved on and found the home that my Mum has now lived in for over 20 years.

The discussion around social housing and socially rented homes often gets confused with the debate around affordable homes. Of course, as a Conservative, I absolutely believe we should ensure that everyone is able to own their home, but the pursuit of our property-owning utopia should not ignore those people who may not be able to (or want to) own their home.

For me, and for the communities I represent, social housing is a bedrock.

For me, it provided somewhere safe, somewhere I could thrive and work, and more importantly it supported that sense of ‘Place’ that is so integral to anyone’s identity and stability. That is why the government is striving to ensure this is re-invigorated, particularly in areas like mine, which have seen their communities disintegrated after years of being overlooked.

There have been some real wins for social housing recently. Last year, housing associations in England built more than 45,600 affordable homes and added an estimated £2.4 billion to the national economy. Notwithstanding the clear economic benefits of a strong social housing network, the residual benefits of providing a strong foundation for some of the most vulnerable in our communities to be able to go out and expand from, goes without saying. Giving people a sense of responsibility and belonging allows all the other aspects of community to flourish. That’s how I went from Social Housing to Westminster and how every little boy like me should also be given that chance.

There is however, still more to do:

A YouGov Survey published last week by the National Housing Federation shows that:

  • More than 1 in 10 people have said they felt depressed during lockdown, because of a lack of space in their home.
  • One in 20 people who said they had a lack of space had also said they had needed medication as a result.
  • Nearly 20 per cent of those in cramped conditions hadn’t been able to get enough sleep due to lack of space.

Clearly, these are problems that need resolving.

I am excited by the Prime Minister’s statement that our recovery will involve “Build, Build, Build” – this is key to our future.

It is now incumbent on politicians like me, representing communities like mine, to ensure that social housing is at the heart of our recovery plan and gets the support that’s long overdue to resolve these problems, which I am sure many of my constituents can relate to.

Yes, this does mean building more homes, but it also means looking at innovative ways that we can sustain and improve our current social housing stock. It means ensuring that we have a social housing system that provides a bedrock for our most vulnerable, and re-building those communities that have been decimated after years of being overlooked.

This will be done by taking the revolutionary and reformative zeal that we’ve seen from this Prime Minister, and if necessary, totally re-inventing and re-thinking the way we provide social housing.

We can start immediately by re-profiling existing commitments to social housing and providing additional tenure and timing flexibility in the current grant programmes. We need to add additional flexibilities in the current grant programmes and extend the existing Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes Programme for an additional year to 2022, with the same conditions as the current programme prioritising new social and affordable homes built by housing associations. It could also be made available for bulk-buying homes from developers at a discount to convert to rent, as long as the homes are high quality, the right size, and in the right places.

We should also use the forthcoming Spending Review to double down on our ‘levelling up’ plan, by setting out a long-term investment programme. This will kickstart the building of a new generation of high quality, beautiful and greener affordable homes for people to rent and buy.

The economic impact of the coronavirus will no doubt hit communities in the north and midlands, hardest. Therefore, it is important that funding is targeted to support those in greatest need and we should adopt a place-based approach to renewal in cities, towns, and communities across the country. The communities in my constituency need this renewal and I hope the constituencies with the greatest need will be prioritised.

Not only would this kind of commitment stimulate long-term investment in modern methods of construction, it will also create jobs, boost productivity and skills.

To do this effectively, it means that the government will need to listen, and then act on the views and concerns of those communities who are directly impacted by social housing, many of them being the communities which lent us their vote in December, giving us the opportunity to form the government they deserve.

We are at the crossroads of an exciting opportunity for social housing. For the first time in a long time the government of the day understands the very communities who rely on this vital social service. I am determined to ensure for survivors and battlers like my mum and the millions of others like her, that Tories are no longer afraid to talk about social housing.

John Slaughter: How housing for older people can support the recovery effort

6 Jul

John Slaughter is the Director of External Affairs at the Home Builders Federation and Chair of the HBF’s Retirement Housebuilders Group

It is widely acknowledged that housebuilding will be vital to kickstarting growth and helping the country recover from the impact of coronavirus. But as we all adjust to the new normal, Minsters should resist taking a business-as-usual approach to building the homes we need. Instead, when he unveils his fiscal package next month, the Chancellor should put specialist retirement housing at the heart of the effort to get the housing market restarted.

The more you examine the evidence, the stronger the case gets for helping more older people access specialist retirement housing in the wake of Covid-19. During the pandemic, older residents in these developments have been much safer than in wider society. More specialist retirement properties would therefore help ensure that vulnerable people are better protected against future pandemics.

Crucially, increasing provision of specialist retirement housing would also stimulate transactions throughout the housing market. Analysis by a former Treasury economist suggests that encouraging more older people to downsize would free up housing for young families looking for a family-sized home with a garden. And, through the chain effect running through the housing market, every specialist retirement property sold results in another two to three further transactions in the chain.

More specialist retirement housing would also assist with attempts to fix the social care crisis once and for all. As people in these properties are less likely to be admitted to hospital and require further care than people in mainstream housing, this type of accommodation can generate fiscal savings to the NHS and social care services of approximately £3,500 per person per year.

Demand for these properties is estimated to be at 30,000 dwellings a year, up from around 8,000 currently. If we could build this number every year for the next 10 years, it would generate additional fiscal savings across the NHS and social services of £1.4bn per year within a decade. On top of this, it could support the levelling up agenda, creating local jobs and boosting high streets through the spending power of the ‘grey pound’.

The shortage of suitable housing for older people is contributing towards a bottleneck at the top of the housing market. Millions of older people want to downsize but struggle to find suitable accommodation. Other older people are put off from making the move due to a range of financial, sentimental, and practical concerns.

The Chancellor could begin to tackle this bottleneck by making buyers of retirement properties exempt from stamp duty in order to encourage downsizing. Such an approach would recognise the benefits that result further down the chain, helping older people, young families, and first-time buyers. Going further, the Government should set a national target of making 10 per cent of all new housing specifically for older people. With Government targets currently set at delivering 300,000 homes a year by the middle of the next decade, this would mean delivering the objective of 30,000 retirement properties per year.

There are other policy solutions available to exploit the full potential of specialist retirement housing and, with the number of older people in England growing significantly, the time to act is now. Across the UK, older households are becoming increasingly common. Looking over the available data, it is immediately evident that the fastest growing household demographic is amongst those over 80, closely followed by the 65-79 group. Meanwhile, the younger household demographic is growing slowest.

Despite this, we currently have a housing supply policy geared towards encouraging the building of first-time buyer homes. Given the issues that young people face around the high cost of housing, this focus is entirely understandable. But the expected dramatic increase in the number of older households, combined with the benefits outlined, above should give the Chancellor and all politicians pause for thought.

In a speech earlier his year, Chris Pincher, the Housing Minister, acknowledged that “we need more housing for older people”. Six weeks ago, the Government gave the housing market the green light to get moving again. When he delivers his fiscal package, the Chancellor should take the opportunity to shift gear in the direction that the Housing Minister has suggested.

 

 

Peter Gibson: Set the high street free

2 Jul

Peter Gibson is the MP for Darlington

Nobody can doubt the scale of the challenge facing our high streets and town centres as we look to rebuild our economy following this pandemic.

As many towns bid against one another looking for funds from the ambitious Future High Street Fund, my patch of Darlington included, it is necessary to acknowledge that fundamentally what our town centres lack is people.

The bustling high street of yesteryear, stacked with BHS and Woolworths, will never exist again. We have generations of decisions to thank for that: out-of-town shopping, pedestrianisation making access and collection ever more difficult, and local authority car parking charges, to name just a few. Buttressed by shifts in lifestyles and technology, these changes have led us to a world in which every conceivable item can be purchased online.

Our town centres are firmly rooted in the idea of the marketplace, around which local economies have grown. Yet you no longer need to buy your bread from the baker or your meat from the butcher. Now the supermarket will deliver it. You don’t even need to drive into town because the inner ring-road circumnavigates it.

Planning in more recent times has either been the guardian or, more often, the be-devilment of the beating heart of our town centre. Our current restrictions are not fit for purpose and are damaging the very essence of our communities.

The classification of property into use-classes – tablets of stone that allow town halls up and down the land to tell us what we can and cannot do within our property – are the embodiment of this red tape, blocking the renewal of our high streets. They prevent vacant commercial property from being reclassified as residential property. Our enterprises need flexibility and adaptability in order to innovate and grow. As Conservatives, we should do all we can to unlock that innovation and growth.

At a time where we are seeing more and more vacant commercial properties in town centres, and with speculation rife that in a post-COVID world many more will be working remotely, this means red tape has been getting in the way of an enormous opportunity to build homes.

This is not only bad for city-dwellers, who lose out from housing shortages and get priced out of the market by a lack of supply, but also a missed opportunity for the economy, which could benefit from a low-cost way of mobilising private capital to improve macro-productivity.

Even before this pandemic truly struck our economy, we knew that swathes of our retail landscape were surplus to requirements. In March, figures showed a vacancy rate of 12.2%. And though the Government has provided unprecedented levels of support to our high street businesses – no business rates this year, the furlough scheme, and small business cash grants, to name just a few measures – we know that vacancy rates, sadly, will rise significantly over the next few months as these schemes are unwound and some businesses never return.

Many towns’ arterial roads that were filled with houses that have become shops and offices now see vacant spaces opening up, leaving gaps and sapping the spirit of the town centre. We need to enable those properties to more easily revert to residential use, and as the need for commercial and retail space in the centre contracts we need to ensure that a diverse range of people move in. Not just students, not just starter homes, but homes suitable for our elderly who can easily walk into town, homes suitable for our disabled people enabling them to access services directly, and homes suitable for growing families with children.

While businesses will always rise and fall, our national ‘animal spirit’ will always endure. This is why the planning reforms announced by the Prime Minister this week are so welcome. By removing the red tape around the use of property and brownfield land, we are giving high streets and town centres a chance to be reborn – as a place to live, take your kids, meet your friends, or whatever local people – rather than planners – want.

Robert Halfon: Johnson delivers for the workers but Starmer could win back their votes

1 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Blue-Collar Boris

I think readers of ConservativeHome will know my columns well enough by now that when I want the Conservative Government to be better, I am not afraid to say it. But it is also important to dance a jig or two, when they get it right.

Yesterday’s speech by the Prime Minister was a blue-collar speech in tooth and claw. When he said that he would focus on the people’s priorities, he really meant it.

For communities like mine in Harlow, and no doubt those in and around the blue wall, there will be a sigh of relief that there is no return to austerity, that the NHS is King, that schools and colleges will be better funded and housing and infrastructure will be built across our land.

Above all, we now have an extraordinary and exciting offering to our young people – an opportunity guarantee, comprising a choice between an apprenticeship or a work placement. This is a real policy that could make a difference to winning back younger voters as well.

The reason why this Boris Johnson speech was so important was not just the significant policy content, but because it set the direction of travel for the Conservative administration. After a few rocky weeks seemingly being bogged down in the Coronavirus mire, the Prime Minister is back on the front foot, setting out a Tory Workers’ agenda, that millions of lower income workers not only relate to, but can also get behind.

They have been reminded of why they voted for us again. Of course, saying that we are going to ‘build, build, build’ is easier than the building itself, but now the course/trajectory/path has been set, it is up to the rest of the Government to start constructing our New Jerusalem.

Starmer unstuffed

Patrick O’Flynn was one of the early media forefathers (and proponents) of blue-collar conservatism, way back in the days when Notting Hill was regarded as the preferred venue of the Tory éminence grise – a little unlike Dudley, where Johnson was yesterday. So, he is someone worth reading up on or listening to.

However, his recent article for The Spectator entitled, ‘Starmer is stuffed, filled me with absolute horror, because his line of argument, if accepted, would instill a large dollop of complacency in every Conservative.

In O’Flynn’s view, Starmer’s history and background, his inability to develop blue-collar policy, the cultural wars and the Tories’ reputation for economic competency, means everything will be alright on the night.

If we, as Conservatives, believe the above to be true, that way disaster lies; not only will we lose our majority at worst, or have a hung parliament at best, but our historic red wall gains in the North will crumble away.

Let me set out a few reasons why:

First, Keir Starmer is radically de-Corbynising the Labour Party – almost by stealth and under the cover of coronavirus. Almost all the way through the Shadow frontbench, from PPS’ to the Shadow Cabinet, moderates are being promoted. If you look at the calibre of Labour MPs – like Shadow Business Minister, Lucy Powell, or Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas Symonds – you know that the Labour leader is being serious when he wants to present an alternative Government. Meanwhile, the NEC and Labour General Secretary are passing into the hands of social democrats, rather than the far left.

Second, whilst Starmer may not have had his Clause IV with the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, it is certainly a Clause 0.4. In one fell swoop, Starmer has shown the British public that he will not tolerate the anti-semitism that has so infected his party over the past few years – and given a pretty sure signal that he wants to enter the doors of 10 Downing Street.

The idea that the public will care about Starmer’s past record as Director of Public Prosecutions is as fanciful as voters being negatively influenced by Johnson going to Eton, or his early and controversial newspaper columns.

Third, never underestimate the power of Labour. Their message of helping the underdog and the poor is enduring, still popular and extremely potent. They are not going to sit back and let the Tories rule for eternity. The psephological evidence shows that public opinion is leaning closer and closer towards Starmer for Prime Minister.

The latest Opinium poll shows that Starmer is preferred to lead the country by 37 per cent of voters, compared with 35 per cent who back Johnson. While the Conservatives remain four points ahead of their opposition on 43 per cent to Labour’s 39 per cent, the gap has closed from over 20 per cent in February and early March, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. Scaling the Tory wall is far from insurmountable.

Fourth, on policy: Just because Starmer is a ‘metropolitan’ does not mean that his policies will be ‘metropolitan’, too. His Policy Chief is Claire Ainsley, who wrote an important book, The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes.

If her views, alongside those of a more communitarian nature as proposed by thoughtful Labour thinkers like John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham (with whom Johnson’s former Political Secretary, my colleague Danny Kruger, is collaborating on big society policy development), or Maurice Glasman, then they could actually have an exciting message to the public, winning minds as well as hearts.

If Tories are busy painting flags on planes, or building Royal Yachts, or shooting ourselves in the foot as we are wont to do on a regular basis – whether it be on free school meals or the NHS surcharge – and Labour are focusing on the cost of living, skills and genuinely affordable housing, I think it is pretty clear voters are going to be looking at the Labour offering, once again.

Having said that, if we come up with more of the blue-collar narrative, I set out in the first part of this article, alongside significant tax cuts for the lower paid, then perhaps O’Flynn could be on to something.

I just wish he wouldn’t say it, nor any other right-thinking individual. Conservatives have to take the next few years as if we have a majority of one, and remember that the political left want the Tories gone, and will stop at nothing to kick them out of Downing Street.

Andy Street: Our blueprint setting out the economic ambitions of the West Midlands

30 Jun

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Last week saw the launch of a blueprint setting out the post-Coronavirus economic ambitions of the West Midlands. As a manufacturing heartland, where draftsmen drew up plans for everything from steam engines to Spitfires, blueprints are in our blood. They illuminate our history. This intentionally ambitious £3.2 billion business case draws a clear trajectory to our region’s future.

As Mayor of the West Midlands, it’s my job to attract as much investment as possible. Rishi Sunak’s bold and decisive actions – notably through the furlough scheme – have provided unprecedented economic support for jobs during lockdown. Now, demands on the public purse are high. All investment must be fully justified, diligently used and – crucially – deliver real results. Every penny counts.

Our region was the UK’s fastest growing outside the capital until Covid-19 struck, and as a hotbed of export, manufacturing, construction and professional services, we play a key role in the UK’s economic success. This new blueprint lays out a powerful business case for how continued investment can spark rapid and sustained recovery, not only for us here but for UK PLC.

Our ambition is deliberate because the stakes are high. Research suggests we could be hit harder than most by the lockdown. When coronavirus struck, the West Midlands was in a strong economic position, with record employment figures and productivity growth well ahead of the national rate. However, our economic mix – dependence on manufacturing and business tourism, as well as a significant contribution from universities – leaves us vulnerable.

By following the blueprint we have drawn up, the Government can demonstrate its commitment to ‘levelling-up’ by backing the people of the West Midlands to deliver.

We need to do everything we can to get back on our feet quickly and return to the levels of success we were enjoying before the outbreak hit. That means driving a rapid economic recovery, safeguarding more than 135,000 jobs while building thousands of new homes. It also means learning the lessons of the financial crash of 2008/09, and listening to business.

Investment is crucial. However, while we need significant investment from the Government – £3.2 billion over the next three years – this is broadly in line with the £2.7 billion investment we have secured since 2017, which supported strong economic success here.

Our business plan is to build on our success and on the investment we have already attracted from Government, while leveraging much more private and public sector investment locally, including from our universities.

The blueprint sets out a business case for investments, while outlining the economic benefits they would deliver. For example, it directly supports our automotive sector by harnessing clean technology and electrification. A major investment package, including £250 million towards a Gigafactory producing state-of-the-art batteries, will unlock 51,700 green jobs.

The building of HS2, next year’s Coventry City of Culture festivities and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games present opportunities to create jobs for local people. By accelerating major infrastructure investment and supporting the recovery of the tourism and cultural sector we can unlock 33,000 jobs.

Then there is the West Midlands’ growing reputation as a hotbed for health research. By investing in healthcare innovation we can protect 3,200 jobs, while improving the health of our population.

Improving transport, housing and digital infrastructure will play a key part in a rapid recovery, while laying the foundations for future economic strength. We can build better transport and digital links to drive productivity and create thousands of jobs in construction. Schemes include extending rail, metro and bus routes, with cash for enhanced digital connectivity and to accelerate fibre connectivity in deprived areas. Reopening long-closed railway stations will better connect people to employment opportunities, attract investment into once-isolated areas and improve productivity.

The West Midlands has pioneered the regeneration of brownfield sites to tackle the housing crisis, while protecting the environment. We even have our own regional definition of ‘affordable housing’ applied at planning level by the West Midlands Combined Authority. We want to build 35,000 new homes – 15,000 of which will be affordable – with a focus on housing key workers. Plans include using a £200m investment package to regenerate derelict eyesores and £24 million for a new National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton, which will be a centre of excellence for land reclamation.

Investment to equip people with the skills needed for the future aims to help get them back into work. This includes helping 38,400 young people obtain apprenticeships and work experience, retraining 20,000 workers for in-demand sectors such as health and social care, logistics and business services, and upskilling 24,000 for jobs for the future.

Finally, we want to back the region’s businesses with support schemes – including helping them navigate their way through the post-lockdown world – creating or safeguarding 43,900 jobs.

This ambitious business case is based on our region’s experiences not only of recovering from the last downturn, but on the successes of the last three years. The blueprint has been developed as a team effort between the region’s local enterprise partnerships, universities, business groups and local authorities.  Crucially, some of our biggest employers have also shared their insights about how the region can play its part in securing a strong national recovery, putting central investment to good use.

For the UK to fully recover, all of its regions must recover too – creating a stronger country with a more robust, balanced economy.

Andrew Carter: A zoning system is needed to build the homes we need

26 Jun

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities.

You can almost guarantee that, however mad British politics gets, solving the housing crisis is never far from policy makers’ minds.

In Downing Street, Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick are reportedly working on a plan to ramp up homebuilding numbers as part of our recovery from the economic damage done by lockdown. I understand that very significant reforms are being suggested to Britain’s post-war planning rulebook.

Significant reforms are certainly needed. The shortage of homes, particularly for younger people who need move to our most high-demand cities and towns for work, remains one of the largest domestic challenges that we face as a country. It fuels huge social divisions: while homeownership remains a distant dream for many young people, existing homeowners – mostly older and living in urban south east England – have amassed huge fortunes in housing wealth.

Without a proper plan to fix this problem and help the younger generation, no political party should be confident about its own long-term survival. The Government must come up with a bold solution to get Britain building the homes we need, where we need them.

All too often our analysis of the housing crisis boils down to criticising the people operating around it: greedy developers; box-ticking town planners; selfish NIMBYs or frivolous millennials impulse-buying too many avocados to save for a deposit.

We say that if only these people changed their behaviours – built more, saved more, thought more about the next generation – then we wouldn’t have a housing crisis. This is a flawed view; the problem with our planning system is the system itself.

Most town planners that you speak to will quietly admit that the planning system is designed to prevent development, not permit it. Its discretionary case-by-case nature rations the development of land and chokes off the supply of new homes in the places where we need them most – close to jobs. Instead, it forces councils to build new homes where it is most politically expedient, not where they’re needed.

The consequence of this? Just four per cent of suburban neighbourhoods supplied 45 per cent of new homes in the past decade, while one in five neighbourhoods built no new homes at all. Some places have particularly poor records: in Oxford for example, no neighbourhood has built more than 25 homes a year in the last decade and as a result, many of the people drawn there for work and study struggle to afford decant housing. If this does not change our prosperity will suffer and the inequalities that we see in this country will become even more entrenched.

Clearly the bureaucratic case-by-case nature of the current planning system is a major hurdle to our ability to supply the homes that we need, where we need them. You can see alarming parallels in our own system with the ‘shortage economies’ of the former Eastern Bloc, where production was tightly controlled by the rationing of permits.

Tinkering around the edges is not enough. To solve the housing crisis and build the homes needed we should introduce a brand-new flexible zoning code, designed by the UK and devolved governments, to guide local authorities and city regions in the development of their own local plans.

Under this new code, any proposals that comply with a zone-based local plan and building regulations would automatically be granted planning permission. Areas would be zoned according to density – ranging from light residential up to industrial.

There would still be opportunities for public consultation under this model, but they would be frontloaded into the writing of the plan rather than giving the public effective sign off on every single development.

I appreciate that removing much of the public consultation element of the planning process would be a controversial move for many people, but the current system is simply too bureaucratic and unresponsive to allow for enough new homes to be built.

Many of the most common concerns that people have about development, such as aesthetics and density, could be addressed in the drafting of the local plan. So, for example, if people wanted to ensure that any new developments in their area were medium density mock-Georgian terraces they would still have the opportunity to do this under a zone-based system, but at the very beginning when the plan is developed.

A stable home need not be unaffordable, as it is for many people in Britain today. Our housing crisis is the result of a political choice that results from our tacit commitment to sustain a bureaucracy that deliberately undersupplies new homes. This fuels inequality between prosperous places and struggling one, between homeowners and their children, and between the haves and the have-nots.

We can change this with a more flexible zoned approach to development, but it requires genuine political will to make it happen. With a majority of 80 and no election on the horizon, the time is right for the Government to seize this opportunity to end the housing crisis.

Yet if it balks now and our housing crisis worsens, it will further entrench our economic and social divides and make Britain an even more unequal place.

You can read our new report ‘Planning for the Future: How flexible zoning will end the housing crisis’ here.

Paul Carter: We could see a housing recovery – if we give builders the incentives they need

25 Jun

Paul Carter was Leader of Kent County Council from 2005 to 2019. He is a Director of Localis.

If we are going to ‘build, build, build’ – and do it well – then we need to put people and communities at the heart of a new relationship between the Government and the construction industry.

The Government is taking positive steps to get Britain back building again – but much more will be needed to kickstart the industry.

The construction industry alone provides close to two million jobs or seven per cent of the national jobs total. New housebuilding delivered £47 billion of output in 2019 of which 60 per cent was delivered by smaller enterprises employing less than 100 people. Others will be employed in related trades and professions as utilities are connected, community infrastructure such as schools, roads, and hospitals are put in place, and property is maintained and managed. When the Construction Industry is building, the Country is working.

As a local government leader and senior councillor for many years, and with a lifelong career as a housebuilder, I have experienced, at first hand, significant economic recessions: the stockmarket collapse of 1987; the 9/11 tragedy of 2001, and the banking crisis of 2008. All had an immediate and long-lasting impact on the housebuilding industry and saw housing delivery fall dramatically. The worldwide recession post-Covid now presents an even greater challenge accepting that the pent-up demand and need for more new homes will not abate.

To support the Government’s drive for a million new homes by the end of this parliament and to avoid a housebuilding slump, Localis invited leading contributors from all sections of the industry to come forward with ideas and innovation that should help kickstart the post-Covid housebuilding recovery.

Their proposals and suggestions are contained in an essay collection published by Localis this week entitled “Building for renewal: Kickstarting the C19 housing recovery” with the aim of getting the housebuilding industry and the national economy firing again on all cylinders.

Contributions are challenging and insightful on the important role of housing in promoting opportunity and prosperity.

They major on two significant areas: the need for planning reform – and funding both infrastructure and all aspects of housing provision.

The essays and summary recommendations grapple with bringing forward new and innovative ways to fund infrastructure provision, ideally in advance of development. These include the suggestion to raise a new levy on the colossal windfall financial gains of landowners when residential planning is granted on greenfield/agricultural land.

They also include a whole range of incentives to get housebuilders building such as the extension of the Help to Buy scheme, alongside a new raft of incentives to support small builders and considerable support for the Government’s First Homes initiative with a specific focus on key worker housing.

On planning reform, there is support for the return of strong Spatial Planning Regulations to enable planning of essentially-needed infrastructure as a consequence of housing growth over a wider geography than individual Local Plans. There is general support for a reduction in the red tape and bureaucracy in the planning and building regulation process which can add delay to getting diggers on site.

The collection identifies the critical themes for action for national economic recovery led by the construction industry. To achieve this, a strong and effective partnership working will be essential. We need to put people and communities at the heart of this new relationship, working with local government, developers, and other public agencies and with a government which continues to put housing high in its order of priorities.

Above all, we must invest the funding necessary to avoid a housing recession, and recognise – as put so clearly in one essay – that “the fundamental basis of a healthy and successful life is a safer and secure home”.