Housing policy conference creates common ground

The Home Builders Federation (HBF) Policy Conference has once again proven itself to be the country’s premier opportunity for national politician’s to showcase their thoughts on how the housing industry should operate.

Taking advantage of this unique access to senior housing sector representatives, government and opposition players use the conference to sell their construction policies. A highlight of this year’s conference was Housing Minister Kris Hopkins calling on the homebuilding industry to “go back to your boardrooms and ask how we can deliver more new homes.” Something we are sure they had not thought of doing before the conference.

Throwing down the ‘build more homes’ gauntlet he stated:

“We have removed a lot of the barriers to building more new homes. Tell us what else needs to be done. I want you to build more new homes. I am not going to put a figure on it, but I want more.”

The minister also went to great lengths to remind his audience of the coalition’s housing initiatives and policies. He emphasised how the housing construction industry recovery had created “jobs, wages and was giving opportunities for young people.” However, he did recognise that to increase the numbers of skilled employees the housing industry had to do more to promote the benefits of working in the homebuilding sector and suggested: “You need a pipeline of people. Don’t sit back; break down the door of your local college and demand they produce the skills to make your business successful.”

Politically balancing the conference Shadow Housing Minister Emma Reynolds addressed the gathered developers, great and good, confirming that Labour also believes that skills are a big issue and that labour shortages are restricting building and housing starts.

She suggested that the UK should not rely on migrant labour for construction skills and that there are an estimated 900,000 unemployed young people that could help tackle the workforce challenge.

Reynolds also stressed that Labour does support the need to help first-time buyers and welcomed the focus of the Help to Buy equity loan on new homes. However, she did not confirm that a future Labour government would continue the Help to Buy initiative. Underlining her worries about the second phase of the initiative she confirmed that:

 “We  support help for first-time buyers, which is why we support Help to Buy 1, which rightly focuses on new homes. But Help to Buy 2 has been widely criticised and poses a real risk of soaring house prices.”

This was possibly not what the industry leaders really wanted to hear and Reynolds then touched another raw nerve by confirming that Labour are looking at releasing more residential land. This would be achieved by easing the planning system and tackling the perceived issue of land banking, which despite protests from the conference audience, she confirmed Labour still considered to be a problem.

Another key speaker was Sir Michael Lyons, who is currently conducting a housing review on behalf of the Labour Party. His review objective is to help the opposition identify ways to build 200,000 homes a year. However, recognising the current shortage of homes in the UK he stated that:

“We need to go well beyond that target to ensure the security of decent quality homes for society.”

Sir Michael has been gathering evidence on the industry and will deliver his report to the Labour Party in September. Previewing his early thoughts to the housing industry audience, he said that there was a need for firm political leadership from national government, as well as “the right balance between national imperative and local discretion, between current and future residents.”

Interestingly this new research is taking place a decade on from the Barker Review of Housing Supply. Kate Barker, writing for the then Labour government, warned that at least 210,000 private homes a year were needed in England to stem a growing housing crisis.

The conference was, therefore, the perfect opportunity for the HBF to confirm that only 115,000 homes have been delivered and to launch their own report Barker review: a decade on, which estimates that achieving Barker’s ‘most ambitious objective of improving the housing market’ would now require 320,000 private sector starts a year. This is a level only reached in four years since World War II.

The HBF also used the conference to ask all political parties, as the election looms, to commit to the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is driving the industry’s recovery.

The HBF encourages national policy makers to ensure that planning policies continue to help bring land forward. It also wants to ensure that the regulatory environment is realistic and does not render development sites unviable.

The HBF’s Executive Chairman, Stewart Baseley, explained:

“The Barker Review was a seminal report for housing and starkly illustrated the scale of the emerging crisis. Since then, successive governments have failed to pay heed and develop policies to deliver the homes the country needs.

“As we approach a general election, we now need to see all parties committing to policies that lead to a sustained increase in housebuilding.”

We can only hope that the conference will have shown homebuilders that there is a positive property building future and that politicians now understand better how they can help make this happen.