“I am a man desperately in need of allies to help build the homes that we can agree are desperately needed in this country.”
Gavin Barwell, Housing Minister, 2 March 2017
I was in Taunton this week to see the housing minister’s white paper roadshow.
Gavin Barwell is at least the eighth housing minister I’ve seen in action since 2004. Five of those were on similar visits to the South West when I worked at the HCA.
To say that he’s inherited a tough gig is an understatement. The Housing White Paper has had a mixed response, which isn’t surprising for a sector with so many interested parties.
Those parties – from private landlords to Prospective Parliamentary Candidates – were all at Somerset County Cricket Club to quiz the minister.
Mr Barwell impressed with his grasp of detail and was keen to stress that the housing crisis won’t be solved by a couple of announcements.
Whilst there is disagreement on the detail, are we moving towards agreement on the nature of the problem?
There are loads of questions to unpick. Here are three things that struck me about the minister’s responses to questions he took in Taunton.
Questions from the government to the housing sector
#1 Thorny issue of the green belt: Knightstone chief executive Nick Horne asked for more honesty about the green belt. As chair of the Bristol Homes Commission and LEP board member, Nick has looked at how to build more homes, faster in the West of England. The region needs more than 100,000 homes over the next 20 years. Around 40% of the region is green belt. The minister says that ‘in exceptional circumstances’, green belt development is an option. Some difficult decisions that have been parked for years lie ahead.
#2 New market, new players? Mr Barwell said developers have told him that they will not plug be able to build the homes we need on their own. He sees local authorities as having a big role:
“Last time we managed to build the homes we need local councils were a big part of the answer.”
As Jules Birch says, such comments underplay local authorities’ role in the house-building boom.
“For the record, local authorities built 1.5 million of the 2.3 million homes completed in the 1950s and 1.2 million of the three million homes built in the 1960s. In only two of those 20 years did the private sector complete more than 200,000 homes.”
There are signs of some councils investing in new ways of building homes, including in Bristol. It will take a *huge* shift to get anywhere near the levels needed to plug the gap.
Will self-builders, small builders, councils and community land trusts step into the gap?
#3 Change in attitudes towards more housing. Mr Barwell mentioned research suggesting that public attitudes towards the need for new homes are changing.
This may surprise those who face vocal campaigners opposed to their plans.
But the minister was right to highlight the need for meaningful engagement when he said:
“Evidence shows that where developers engage communities, they get a better response.”
To be effective, it must go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and reach those who want new homes in their communities. Campaigns to oppose prospective developments can be set up quickly. Organisations who don’t put in the groundwork to build trust with communities will face difficulty.
The response he got from people I spoke with afterwards was positive. Folk were complimentary on Twitter too.
If Mr Barwell stays as housing minister for long enough to put his plans into action, he may be all the more popular for that.