Amazingly, I’ve been passed over in the Cabinet reshuffle. As a white, middle-aged man, I thought I met at least three of the qualifying criteria for office. I’ve never heard of the latest two-minute wonder incumbent, but here’s my Five Point Plan for when the post next becomes vacant.
- Create a national Housing Investment Bank (HIB) backed by the assets of RBS, Northern Rock and the other financial institutions bailed out with public money. The HIB could provide development finance for new housing (see below), but also affordable loans for mortgages, shared ownership and domestic energy efficiency improvements, but with any surplus ploughed back into future housing investment. A similar model in the US, set up under the New Deal, worked very well for sixty years. The HIB could also buy repossessed and empty homes and enable people to carry on living in them as public sector tenants. A national ‘buy back’ scheme would be offered to council leaseholders who want to return to being tenants.
- Build 200,000 new council homes over the next five years, as the post-war Labour government did amid similar financial wreckage. The programme would be paid for by a combination of the HIB and Public Works Loans Board finance and built on publicly owned land, transferred at nil cost. A network of regional procurement and supplies would reduce waste and encourage recycling of materials, while achieving economies of scale and cutting out unnecessary layers of sub-contracting.
- New council housing would be built by local building firms reporting to locally elected representatives and would include apprenticeship schemes, some of which would focus on long-term management and maintenance. Community-led planning and design would ensure that new homes are built to meet local needs and use the latest innovations in building technology to ensure that new council homes are affordable to live in and maintain for the next hundred years.
- Building new council homes inevitably raises the thorny issue of Right to Buy. The RTB can remain, but without cash subsidies. These should be replaced with incentives to encourage people to remain as tenants e.g. redcued rent after 10, 15 and 20 years, with free rent for life after 25. This would both build the ‘sustainable’ communities that are the mirage of much current policy, but also enable long-term tenants to save money in later life that could be used, among other things, to provide the legacy that is often the motivation for buying a home.
- A million new council homes would both create thousands of jobs and defuse the volatility of the housing market that is currently driven by under-supply creating scarcity and pushing prices up to a level that few can afford – a situation that suits the private property industry very well. But we also need to de-stigmatise all forms of renting and eliminate social stratification by tenure. This will mean improving conditions for private renters by increasing the minimum length of tenancies to a year and re-introducing ‘fair rents’. Some landlords will bleat, but this can be mutually beneficial because longer tenancies means lower turn-over and lower rents means less reliance on Housing Benefit, which will in turn save public money. Property owners should also be incentivised to let empty or underused homes through improvement grants, affordable management services and rent deposit schemes provided by non-commercial organisations. Locally based repair and maintenance services, for all tenures, can be developed alongside the council house building programme so that we share responsibility for the condition of our housing – and spend less time doing DIY!