Karl Marx wrote that ‘history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce’. This sums up the housing White Paper unveiled on 7th February,writes Glyn Robbins.
It’s farcical that, less than a year after the shambolic Housing and Planning Act limped through parliament, the government has produced another 100-pages of proposed legislation.
The tragedy is that, far from ‘fixing’ the housing crisis, these measures will only make it worse.
The housing industry has broadly welcomed the White Paper as an indication that the government is at least taking the issue seriously.
But in my 25-years in the field, I’ve lost count of the number of ‘radical step changes’ I’ve heard announced. The truth is this government, like its predecessors, can’t think beyond its obsession with the housing market, which is the root cause of the problem.
In fairness, there are two elements of the White Paper I do welcome.
First, contrary to the oft-repeated racist lie, it explicitly states that the housing crisis is not caused by immigration or because the country is ‘full’.
Second, the government does open the door to the possibility – in my view a necessity – for councils to start building homes again.
There’s no promise of the money they need, but I hope and expect local authorities will exploit this opening, particularly by building on public land, something the White Paper also encourages.
Beyond that, the White Paper is old wine in new bottles. The tired excuse of the planning system is trotted out again.
There’s certainly a need to improve planning, above all by making it more genuinely democratic and ensuring permissions comply with housing need.
But the White Paper reads like an exercise in blame shifting, suggesting its local authorities, not central government or profit-driven developers, who are responsible for the failure to build enough homes.
As with what’s left of the 2016 Act, the most worrying aspects of the White Paper are those designed to accelerate the commercialisation of housing associations.
The Paper confirms the intention to fully recognise them as private companies. This only means the legal fact catching up with actual reality, but it’s still a worrying sign, particularly when taken alongside the proposal that HAs be allowed the flexibility to increase rents after 2020, all within a context of ever-weakening regulation and accountability.
Similarly, while the Paper offers nothing tangible to improve the situation of private renters, it does signal the aim of attracting large-scale speculative investment to the sector.
Meanwhile, the government remains silent on the lingering doubts and contradictions of the Housing and Planning Act.
Any intention to build more council homes is fatally flawed by the expectation they might be sold-off when they become empty if they’re ‘high value’.
Likewise, their contribution to fostering stable, mixed communities is undermined by the scrapping of secure tenancies.
We still don’t have the detail about how ‘Pay to Stay’ and the extension of Right to Buy might work in practice. If, like Starter Homes, these potentially disastrous policies are being kicked into the long grass, that’s good. But the uncertainty isn’t.
The only thing the White Paper really clarifies is that the government doesn’t know what it’s doing.