The answer is political not technical, but it’s not just up to the politicians

Housing professionals and campaigners definitely know their onions. I’ve been to a lot of seminars and events recently. The standard of debate is always exceptionally high, as is the level of technical knowledge and evidence to back up people’s point of view.

At each one I’m reminded more and more just how much housing policy there is out there – from land taxes, to land auctions, to further radical planning reforms, to different funding models etc.

But, as contributors often point out many of these ideas never see the light of day and that’s because of a lack of political will or leadership. Politicians, the housing pros bemoan, are too afraid to challenge the central tenets of homeownership, of social housing or whatever to solve the housing problem.

Let me stir up a bit of a hornet’s nest and defend the politicians.

The politicians lack any space in which to move on housing policy. Even the attempt to open up the debate finds them lambasted, even before they get near policy (for political balance, here and here). For people with jobs reliant on public opinion, who are responsible directly to the general public that’s a tough place to be. The housing sector will wait forever for a politician to strike out on their own.

Those who don’t rely directly on the electorate need to do more of the heavy lifting.

Unless more space and debate about the fundamentals is created beyond the policy roundtables, the politicians are stuck where they are. Think tanks need to champion radical solutions and provide solutions to how those ideas can get traction with the public. Campaigning organisations should target public opinion, the media and civil society in a more committed and constructive way. Then politicians can speak up without being outliers on the edges of a conservative debate, where they are easy to pick off by the right-wing attack dogs in the press and government.

Reports, articles and seminars which end with lists and lists of recommendations for the government are not going to get anywhere. There is no lack of ideas or suggestions for the policy reforms, in Whitehall, ministerial teams and shadow ministerial teams – they read the think tank articles and go to the seminars too.

We also need to be more positive. Simply pedalling a narrative of despair about how no progress is ever made and how the system’s been bust for decades, just creates the impression that all is hopeless in housing. We need to make a better case that change is achievable. Don’t get me wrong – people need to be made more aware of them problems but also need to know that radical change is within our capacities and not a punt in the dark. 

The answer to the housing crisis can only be political, it’ll never be technical, but the responsibility for political leadership extends beyond the politicians.

Then the shelves of unused and untried housing policy, developed over the decades by passionate and intelligent people, who understand housing and the people who lose out, might just get a look in.

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2 Responses to The answer is political not technical, but it’s not just up to the politicians

  1. Toby Lloyd says:

    It is probably unreasonable – and certainly unwise – to expect elected politicians to challenge deep-seated assumptions about our housing system. Without launching into another list of technical policy issues, the core problem is an unsustainable homeownership market – but no sane politician will take on a system that a chunky majority believe they benefit from, especially one that would take many years to reform, with more potential banana skins than a chimps tea party.

    But sadly the same pressures apply to campaigning organisations and the media, who are dependent on public donations, approval and attention day by day – not just once every five years.

    It could be argued that individual politicians are better placed to say the unthinkable, as a means of getting recognised – and at least they don’t have to face the public for a few years. Witness Grant Shapps’ assertion that house prices need to stabilise (highlighted previously on this blog). A timid step it may have been, but in the context of a secular obsession with tax free house price windfalls, it’s about as radical as anyone seems prepared to be.

    Until we can find or create a voice that can be both democratically credible and capable of standing up to the collective delusions of the majority, I fear we will all just have to keep churning out those unread technical policy reports… Minutiae of HRA localisation anyone?

  2. Dan Filson says:

    For politicians to have the confidence to think out of the box, and more importantly to voice their thoughts, they need to have the security of either being in power for a Parliament and secure from being sacked for being original, or out of office / in opposition and at the start of a Parliament and equally secure from being execrated by their own side for venturing unorthodox views.

    We should be able to discuss rationally as adults issues of:-
    security of tenure in public sector housing,
    priority orders for public sector housing allocation,
    taxation exemption of owner-occupied housing,
    council tax banding for high value housing,
    public sector rent levels and the interplay with housing benefit,
    who should decide strategic housing land use policy,
    answerability of housing associations,
    and many other issues without those stepping outside the party line being torn to bits.

    Any other subject headings that should be in play, but aren’t, out of fear?

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