Proffering solutions to the housing crisis has attenuated into an intellectual exercise, played mainly for left/right political headlines, the latest grabber being last month’s Labour housing manifesto.

Peter Bill

The party’s ideas deserve more serious scrutiny than most of the ‘well they would say that’ ideas published with metronomic regularity by pure self-interest groups. My self-interest is, of course, blowing my own trumpet.

So, here we go, ta-ra! Do it My Way, my own medley – shamelessly mixed from long-familiar tunes aired by politicians and self-interest groups, left and right – of solutions to the housing crisis:

  • Allow planning authorities to CPO agricultural/brownfield land at existing use value, but only under these circumstances: the land is zoned for housing in an agreed local plan; the council, and no one else, pre-determines the council/housing association/ private homes mix for each zone; council homes stay rented in perpetuity at half market rents; the council keeps 80% of land profit from private sales and only uses it to buy more land, after paying off the cheap government loan to buy the first tranche. Yes, CPO rules need to change first.
  • Labour has grasped this vital point: alter the 1961 Land Compensation Act to enable land to be bought at existing use value, an idea floated for years, even by pragmatic Tories. This means you get to build 100,000 council homes for £10bn, instead of £16bn, said Labour housing spokesman John Healey. There are few cleverer politicians, but the idea of setting up an English Sovereign Land Trust (ESLT) to do the grunt work exposes Labour’s fatal attraction for centrist solutions.
  • Jobs for the boys and girls. Two years to get the ESLT motoring. Planning fights to the death with Tory councils. A big target for vested interests to attack.
  • It would be better to finally accept the following: one, national politicians don’t build homes, builders and housing associations do; two, national politicians don’t permit homes to be built, local authorities do; and three, both red and blue councils need to be onside. Housing associations are gearing up to build more and will love the idea of cheap land, but hate an intervening quango. HAs may not be trusted to build at 50% of affordable rents. So, if not, Do it My Way.

  • Let councils build directly, or not, and take the flack. Landowners’ protests can be borne. Only libertarians sympathise with owners whose land values rise from £20,000 to £2m an acre after the state confers permission. Housebuilders will need limited sympathy: sorry we’re affecting your land banks’ value, but it’s for the greater good. We don’t care what you think about a rise in council home building; you’re hardly going to contribute. The only part of the My Way plan I haven’t figured out is how to stop everyone squabbling about the trees and focus on growing the size of the wood.

Construction housebuilders 636 resized

“National politicians don’t build homes, builders and housing associations do”

Beware if a tax inspector calls

Who’d be an estate agent? Yes, commercial agents as well, at least in HMRC’s unblinking eyes. The tax-gatherers supervise the sector under money laundering regulations introduced last year. Solicitors and accountants are supervised by their professional bodies. The RICS has, wisely or not, steered clear.

Here’s some advice gleaned last week from an estate agent visited by HMRC: if notified that an inspector is coming, assume the brace position. Interrogations can last hours. Bring along a lawyer. You may feel innocent, but there will be boxes you  failed to tick. One firm (not my informant) failed to do so and was fined £15,000,  after a seemingly amicable visit. Here’s a question: Do you deal with politically exposed persons? “No!  We don’t have potentates or oligarchs on the books, more’s the pity.” But how do you know? No tick-box on the ‘know your client’ paperwork? Guilty!

The law came in to effect in September, but guidance only appeared on HMRC’s website in late March, so you can try and plead ignorance to the details of the law, if not the law itself. Good luck. PS: the firm that was fined decided to pay, as “the fight will be more expensive than the fine”. So get ticking.

Peter Bill is a journalist and author of Planet Property