Tony Burke: Smoke and Mirrors or a Serious Policy Review

Published on 5th January 2017
Avonside Group Services CEO, Tony Burke

Following my last column which discussed – amongst other topics – the often ‘hit and miss’ nature of communication within the supply chain, I would like to extend the observation a little further, hopefully you will agree this is not too tenuous.

Following the rash of Government initiatives at the opening of 2017 it seems that the stimulation of residential house building is firmly near the top of the political agenda – as it has been for some years.

How many times over recent years have we seen the latest Government Minister (they seem to rotate far more than those Ministers in the large departments of state) rush onto our TV screens to breathlessly unveil the latest ‘initiative’?

Well recently on the Radio 4 Today programme, Christine Whitehead Professor for Housing Economics at the London School of Economics (LSE) estimated that over the last decade there have been 180 such initiatives.

Yes, you read that correctly – the number is 180! Or 18 each year! Or 1.5 per month!!

So whilst we can all recognise that we are talking about a decade when we have had both Labour and Conservative governments with the differences of approach that brings, we have also ‘endured’ 4 prime ministers during that same period (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May) of which you will recall only two were actually elected by the British people.

Is it reasonable to assume that the two issues (180 initiatives and 4 prime ministers) are related?

It would certainly go part way to explaining the level of publicity seeking announcements that result in a confused and confusing picture where amounts of Government ‘spend’ are constantly re-stated but in actual fact are often the same funding re-packaged to suit yet another initiative.

Of these schemes the ‘Right to Buy’ certainly seems to have had the most impact, but even here it seems to be a sticking plaster when considering the demographic time bomb that the shortage of housing continues to represent within the UK.

Isn’t it about time that both as an industry and as a country we were entitled to expect a more joined up approach to the issue, which after all is not new? Instead we drop one initiative to be replaced with another (similar) development: Right to Buy = First Time Buyer discounts. Somebody explain the real difference!!

For those of us within the sector, the real issues are quite apparent and there is no ‘silver bullet’ to resolve the issue, it’s a combination of planning restrictions, nimbyism, chronic skills shortages and an overall lack of a long term and concerted strategy and as a result we lurch as a nation from shortfall to shortfall.

Dependent upon the hue of government we swing from private housing provision to social when the answer is that we need a long-term strategy, which includes both. We need a more enlightened approach to skills development with some concrete policies particularly in the light of what Brexit might mean for bringing skills from elsewhere in the world, which is I believe a more acute issue the further south in the UK you travel – although by no means exclusively.

So once again we have something of a ‘hit and miss’ approach that is short term, short sighted and offers the classic ‘kick the can down the road’ approach so prevalent in modern government.

When government finally accepts that the shortage of new housing, one of THE dominant issues of the next 20 years (as it has been over the last 20 years), and that the provision of housing for all sectors of our community – not least for younger people is a major imperative then they have to accept that even in these straightened times in terms of public funds – money will need to be spent.

It goes without saying that it should be spent judiciously, but spent nevertheless. Perhaps instead of sitting on a Foreign Aid unspent surplus and an on-going commitment to 0.7% of the overall budget being spent of foreign aid (circa £20 billion pounds) we could begin to re-appraise such policies and begin to look after the British people whilst still maintaining our commitment to help those less fortunate around the world?

Surely a long term progressive plan pulling together all the elements required is now too important to be left to the latest government appointee, and should be the subject of a Royal Commission to look into, propose and oversee such a strategy. This would in no way be counter to the post Brexit infrastructure strategy, and should be on a par with new airports, HS2 and roads etc.,

This would be an area of Government policy where less would certainly be more!!