And then, of course, there are the distinctly weaselly words ‘up to’ in the expression ‘…unlock up to 40,000 homes…’. Because if I promised to give you up to £40,000, I’ve fulfilled my commitment even if I only gave you a pound. So there’s no way the government can fail to do what it promises, mainly because it hasn’t promised anything much at all.
It’s all rather a case of papering over the cracks. Throwing a bit of spare cash at these problems pays for more sticking plasters but it doesn’t solve the underlying issue. That would require a much more draconian approach, one that this or any previous government has so far lacked any appetite to take. Instead we get a series of positive sounding headlines that don’t actually change very much at all.
In a similar vein, the government says that it ‘remains committed to building the affordable homes this country needs, building on the success of the existing Affordable Homes Guarantee Scheme through a £3 billion extension which will help the scheme deliver 20,000 new homes’. Again, the commitment sounds great, but 20,000 new homes is small beer given how many new houses we actually need.
Now, I’m firmly apolitical when it comes to government policy – I know it probably doesn’t sound like it, but I simply call things as I see them. I’m fully confident the next government will be equally rubbish at solving these problems, whichever colour flag they’re flying, partly because they are difficult problems to fix. I’m also a passionate advocate for small-scale property developers helping to solve the housing crisis. We have around 1.2m new homes that could be created by repurposing or converting redundant commercial property, and the only people who can make a dent in this opportunity are the SME developers. This is because the larger housebuilders operate on a very different model. They look for a juicy large slab of land with nothing on it, and this allows them to build their range of pre-designed houses of all shapes and sizes and make millions of pounds in profit in the process. Give them an empty office building or shop and their computer simply says ‘no’. Their business model doesn’t involve the repurposing of an existing building. Plus, why would they look at a project that only makes a few hundred thousand in profit when they could be making millions?
Which makes it the perfect place for smaller developers to operate in. As a rule, converting existing buildings is cheaper, quicker, and less risky than going down the new-build route, and the government needs to be doing even more to encourage new developers to get involved. Ironically, small-scale property development is an ideal fit for existing landlords, a group the government has shamelessly targeted over the last decade. Let’s face it; it’s about time they had some government-sponsored good news. Historically, SME developers accounted for 30% of the new homes built in this country. Today they account for just 12%. The government has done a good job (see, I told you I was apolitical) in increasing the number of Permitted Development Rights, and there is still more it can do to help get these existing buildings converted. The way we shop and work has changed over the last two decades, leaving a legacy of unneeded buildings that can readily be recycled. This should be the priority, over and above building on our precious greenbelt.
Ok, rant over, as are my reflections on the Autumn Statement, which could reasonably be summarised as some big pieces of good news that will make a difference sandwiched between smaller pieces of good news that won’t. One journalist told me it was understandable that the government was opting to sprinkle a veneer of fairy dust over these problems rather than tackle difficult matters head-on, given that there’s an election on the horizon. I told them that being understandable doesn’t make it right. After all, if everyone stopped working on Fridays because there’s a weekend on the horizon, where would we be (and don’t say ‘in the Civil Service’)?