There was a distinct sound of fiddling as Rome burned this week, courtesy of some pretty bold – but, in the big scheme of things, trivial – housing announcements at the Conservative Party Conference.
While the nation fixated on Boris’s antics on and off stage (and sniggered as a disposable coffee cup was whipped out of his hand by a zealous aide), ministers took to various fringe events to make commitments that in peacetime would be regarded as pretty significant, if unrealistic… and unwelcome.
New housing secretary Robert Jenrick reiterated the new government’s commitment to home ownership, which has not gone down well with those who have been banging the BTR drum for the past few years and thought the government was marching to the same beat. “A retrograde move” was how it was described bluntly during a Property Week roundtable debate on retirement living hosted by Dentons this week.
Our man in Manchester – PW columnist and former Tory bigwig Steve Norris – was equally baffled. “Jenrick endlessly repeated the mantra about home ownership, apparently unaware of how millennials feel about life and how unattractive home ownership is to any young couple who bought five years ago and are now looking at a small loss in many parts of the country,” he told me between fringe housing events. “It’s more surprising still when he’s so young himself – he’s the first millennial secretary of state.”
It is not as if he was preaching to the home-owning converted – Norris said there were more young attendees than he had ever seen and, perish the thought, “a lot of young enthusiastic Boris fans” – but turning the clock back to the home ownership heyday of Thatcher’s Britain is clearly very much the order of the day, as intimated last month at RESI by Esther McVey in her first public speech as housing minister.
Talking of McVey, I felt a bit sorry for her after the merciless ribbing she got for saying that “3D architects” were now building homes “on a computer”. It did, however, reinforce the impression that the current MHCLG incumbents are not exactly on top of the housing brief – or the ramifications of their new policies.
Take Jenrick’s announcement that he wants to boost home ownership by giving all housing association tenants a shared-ownership Right to Buy. That’s great for the housing association tenants who can afford to buy shares in their homes. It’s not so great, however, for the housing associations trying to develop new social rented housing for the millions for whom home ownership will never be an option.
Then there’s the expansion of permitted development rights to allow property owners to build up to two additional storeys to purpose-built flats and detached houses without planning permission. As the BPF’s Ian Fletcher says: “At a time when the industry is prioritising community engagement and increasing transparency, allowing significant alterations to properties without formal engagement could alienate communities.”
Not that they could be more alienated than they are at the moment. It is little wonder that, according to Norris, there were a “remarkable number of remain voters saying ‘just get the bloody deal done’” in Manchester. Delegates were also very keen on an early election, he said, noting lots of: “Bring it on.”
Yeah… bring the apocalypse on.