Yesterday I travelled to the Conservative Party Conference to speak at a fringe event hosted by Conservative think tank Bright Blue. Thank you, Bright Blue, and to Cheyne Capital for sponsoring the event.
First up was new Housing Minister Gavin Barwell. I liked his practical approach, part of which, refreshingly, is to challenge everyone who comes to see him to say what will get more homes built. Equally correctly, he isn't fixated on a single "silver bullet" but plugging away on many fronts at the same time. He was very clear that the market could not solve the crisis on its own, and the state needs to play a part, not least to meet the needs of those who can’t rent or buy in the market.
He repeated earlier statements he has made indicating that the HCA investment programme would be diversified away from its current preoccupation with ownership. In later discussion, however, he warned that building too much social housing could reinforce division in society between renters and owners, a startling (to many of us) assertion, which has been picked up by the Indie and Inside Housing. I think the comment should be taken in its context, as a dig at Jeremy Corbyn’s stance, which Barwell interprets (rightly or wrongly) as being solely about council housing.
To judge from his earlier nodding at my mention of right-of-centre think tank work on public investment for rent to buy, he understands that building homes which allow people to escape the private rent treadmill are a way of bridging that ownership divide. The point I take away from this is the constant need for advocates on our side of the debate to emphasise that we are proposing new solutions for the needs of our time (learning appropriate lessons from the past), not old ones whose brand, whether we like it or not, doesn’t strike a chord with people of his politics.
The second political speaker was Lord Porter, the Chair of the Local Government Association and top local government Conservative. Gary is not a Conservative peer from central casting. He grew up in a council house, and started his married life in one, which he bought. He is a builder, a landlord and a council leader (of a council which still has housing stock) so he sees it all ways. He made an impassioned plea for the government to unlock the balance sheets of council landlords so they can build at speed again. He argued fiercely that the Conservative party should rediscover its roots as the party which gives people the homes they need by public investment in homes for rent.
Journalist Victoria Spratt spoke from the heart too, as a priced out professional member of Generation Rent. A policy agenda focused on ownership only doesn't help her. But it was striking that she saw the answer as government intervention in the private rental market on such issues as agents' fees. People in her position simply don't see social housing as a policy answer directed at them - a challenge for advocacy groups like SHOUT.
Shamez Albhai, partner at Cheyne Capital, argued that there is no need for state intervention in the form of large scale investment. Rather, the state should seek to frame the market to create opportunities for "patient investors", whom he feels can deliver schemes including sub-market rented and supported housing. He gave some examples of schemes for which he has raised financing. These certainly challenge stereotypical assumptions about what private investors want to put their money into, and I don't doubt investment of the kind he described can play a part in a mixed economy, but I would require a lot of convincing it could take us from current levels of building to what we need, let alone including the mix of affordability which is required.
Tail end Charlie, I argued the right of centre case for state investment: an alternative to the private rented sector which is now the dominant tenure for the "just managing" families on which Theresa May wants to focus; saving money on welfare, and a necessary part of getting supply up to what we need. I summarised the findings of the updated Capital Economics research.
Two things about the audience. First, the room was packed, standing room only, despite at least one other housing event running at the same time, and when, according to the BBC, Brexit is the sole topic of discussion. That, in itself, is very encouraging. I've done housing events at party conferences for nearly 10 years now, and something like this would have been more thinly attended in the past. Party members clearly get that housing policy needs fixing. Secondly, Gary's contrarian (in terms of recent official policy) views attracted a lot of support round the room, from MPs, councilors, and others, and no real challenge. A couple of comments from the floor which are fairly typical: "As a party we need to get past the idea that a series of nudges will sort out the housing crisis" and (an MP I think) “why are we obsessed with ownership?” We are still a very long way from what SHOUT would see as perfect sense in policy becoming Conservative and government policy, but I went away encouraged.
I walked part of the way back to the station with one of those people the whole SHOUT endeavour is really about, a homeless man who shared with me his take on the housing crisis and homelessness provision in Birmingham. He was interested that a group like ours had taken arguments for building more genuinely affordable homes into the conference citadel. Let's hope things are moving in a way which helps him and so many others who need a decent, secure, affordable home.