It was a hugely symbolic moment when Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced £2bn of additional funding for a new generation of council housing during her speech at the recent Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Whilst it doesn’t quite take us back to the 1950’s when Housing Minister Harold McMillan enhanced his future Prime Ministerial credentials by building over 300,000 new homes in a single year, around 200,000 of which were council houses, it shows an eventual acceptance by Government that we are not going to tackle one of the biggest public policy challenges of our time without State intervention.
While successive Governments have talked about housing need, population growth, changing demographics and set ever increasing targets for the amount of homes required, we have seen little success on closing the gap between the numbers of homes needed and the amount of new builds actually taking place.
The recent report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, ‘Lifting the lid on bin complaints’, has reignited the debate around outsourced services and whether local government gets value for money from such contracts.
To my mind what the report highlights is the disconnect that can sometimes take place between the council, the contractor and the service user, when a contract is outsourced. Just because a service is outsourced it doesn’t mean that the public don’t think that the council isn’t responsible for it or should have democratic oversight of the service and when they complain they expect their issues to be addressed by the council and blame them if there is a slow response, rather than the contractor.
There are some who criticise local government as being bureaucratic and lacking in creativity. In reality, local councils are being highly innovative in plugging the income gaps left by ongoing austerity and there is something of a renaissance in municipal investments.
APSE and CIPFA property services set out to identity the scale, scope and advantages of municipal investments and the results of our research have found councils taking a measured approach to investments designed to balance risk and rewards. In many ways asset investments allow councils to convert capital investment into revenue - helping them to sustain local services.
With the General Election debate starting to heat up, it’s pleasing to see that the housing crisis is featuring quite prominently in the major political party’s manifestos and more importantly local government’s role as part of the solution.
Whilst it’s not quite the 1951 election where the parties were competing on who could build the most homes during the course of the next parliament, with Harold McMillan’s Prime Ministerial credentials established on the back of delivering on housing pledges made, there is significant recognition by all that the number of homes built needs to increase dramatically in the coming years. The question is how can this be delivered by the next Government?
It’s the infrastructure and facilities, it’s the look and the feel, it’s the local environment and how safe and secure the area is. At a time when we are trying to attract people to our localities and communities, are we cutting back on the very things that make places habitable, those very highly visible and publically recognised neighbourhood services?
We know that local authority expenditure in the UK will be 30% less by 2020, than it was in 2010, we also know that in England local government finance will have moved to a much more local financing model by that point. Under current Government plans most councils will be almost fully dependant on a mixture of council tax and business rates revenue, alongside a small amount of other grants and income generated through commercial activity.
Well it appears as if we are back at Groundhog Day again on housing policy, another white paper acknowledging that we have a major housing crisis in the UK but with limited ideas about how we fix it.
What we do have is some comforting words. Government has ‘listened ‘it wants to ‘help’ to ‘support’. But when we peel back the comforting language what lurks beneath? Well very little that we can rely upon. Whilst I appreciate that running alongside the white paper is a series of consultations it is a missed opportunity to put some tangible solutions forward.
APSE, alongside our research partners in the TCPA, are working on our third tranche of housing research. Time and again we find that the root cause of the housing crisis is the lack of supply of new build, the mix of properties that are being built and in particular the lack of affordable homes. We have consistently called for a strengthened role for local councils to deliver homes for rent on scale to alleviate the strain at the bottom end of the housing ladder.
Councils could be forgiven for wondering if Government remains as committed to devolution and decentralisation of power, post Brexit, as it appeared to be before June’s vote.
What started well and seemed to have support at the highest level of Government, with George Osborne’s zealot like enthusiasm, doesn’t appear to have the same prominence with new cabinet figures, indeed some fear that the agenda could simply fizzle out.
Commercialisation strategy 1.0 was very much about trading and charging, using some surplus capacity or getting additional benefits from assets during the 1980’s. Fast forward to today and version 10.0.3 of that strategy is hugely different in scope and range.
Of course local authorities face huge financial challenges, not least an intention by Government to almost completely remove RSG by 2020, however impractical and unfeasible this may appear for many areas of the country.
The recent launch of the much delayed Childhood Obesity Strategy turned out to be something of a damp squib after being trailed as one of the most important health initiatives of our time.
With voluntary targets set to cut sugar in children’s food and drink by 5%, ultimately rising to 20% and a threat that Government will ‘consider alternative levers, if insufficient progress is being made’, the language of ‘should, might and we encourage’ is hardly going to promote a rush by suppliers in the food industry away from sugary drinks and junk food.
Greg Clark’s speech to the LGA, shortly before the Government reshuffle took place, showed that Government have begun to recognise that a disconnect exists between the prevailing orthodoxy in Westminster on public opinion and the realities of life at a community level.
Following the seismic events of the last few weeks, which have shaken the political establishment to its core, it’s going to take more than a few soundbites and platitudes to appease the public.