What’s wrong with Boris Johnson’s building plans?

Carol Hayton answers the question.

On 30th June yet another meaningless slogan was plastered across the Downing Street lectern in an attempt to convince the British public that Boris Johnson’s government is moving forward with a recovery plan. The ‘Build Build Build’ sticker seemed to have been applied at a slightly lopsided angle, giving the distinct impression that the latest catchphrase has been hastily applied on top of previous examples of badly worded and incomprehensible strap-lines.

You would think that the Conservatives, with their recently found enthusiasm for levelling up, would be aware of the importance of a spirit level when it comes to getting your lines straight and laying firm foundations for your plans. But it is blatantly evident, not only from the slight incline in the wording on Boris Johnson’s lectern, but from the content of his speech on 30th June, that the government do not possess a spirit level and, as a result, has no interest in levelling up as far as the government’s approach to the housing crisis is concerned.

It has been widely acknowledged that the Coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the housing crisis and the serious problems that arise for those living in the poor quality and overcrowded housing conditions that are a symptom of that crisis. There is evidence that the detrimental effect on the mental and physical well-being of those living in these conditions has been greatly exacerbated by the lock-down. Recent research by the New Policy Institute has also identified that there is a heightened risk of Covid 19 infection for those living in overcrowded areas.

The economic fallout from the Coronavirus has resulted in many more people feeling the effects of the housing crisis. Thousands of households, many of whom were already struggling with housing costs in an increasingly unaffordable private rented sector, are now living with the threat of eviction. Reductions in their household income, brought about by job losses and furlough schemes, mean that they are trapped in accommodation they can no longer afford. The homeless charity Shelter has published research that reports that 227,000 private rented sector tenants in England have fallen behind with their rent since March. These tenants could lose their homes when the government’s eviction ban ends on 23 August.

The problem of poor quality, overcrowded and unaffordable housing is a direct result of the failure of successive governments to plan for and invest in the affordable housing that is so desperately needed. This failure has resulted in more and more households being forced to look to the private rented sector to meet their housing needs. This barely regulated sector is responsible for much of the substandard and unaffordable housing that is root cause of the country’s housing problems.

In light of all these issues local authorities, academics, representatives of the housing sector and housing and homelessness campaigners are calling upon the government to ensure that post-Covid economic reconstruction includes a plan to address past failures in housing policy.

Affordable housing definition corrupted

Boris Johnson’s ‘Build Build Build’ speech, however, shows a complete disregard for the concerns raised and a seeming indifference to the severe challenges so many are experiencing in the face of the combined crises. Despite the claim in his speech that he regards, “this Covid crisis as the moment to address the problems in our country that we have failed to tackle for decades”, all that is offered in response to a call for radical action to solve the worsening housing crisis, is a pre-existing commitment of £12 billion over five years to build what is described as ‘ 180,000 new affordable homes for ownership and rent.’ That equates to only £2.4 billion and 36,00 homes a year. When it is widely acknowledged that at least 100,000 social homes are needed to meet the nation’s housing needs, the government’s commitment to deliver a third of that figure is wholly inadequate, particularly as the affordable housing definition is now so corrupted by the Conservatives and so vague, that it appears to have become little more than a marketing tool for over priced new build properties, as the Government’s First Homes scheme so scandalously demonstrates.

Contrast Johnson’s pitiful offer to those in need of a decent home to the massively generous gift to his developer friends and funders. Included in his ‘Project Speed ‘ are plans to increase planning deregulation and permitted development rights. This will provide developers with unfettered opportunities to build whatever they like, and to more easily build whereever they like. Developers will no doubt be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of avoiding Section 106 agreements and democratic planning processes. No doubt Robert Jenrick will be equally pleased about the removal of those irritations. But the prospect of further deregulation has rightly raised alarm bells in many quarters. The developments brought forward under existing permitted development schemes have included a proliferation of poor quality, high density schemes where office blocks have been converted into housing units. Many of which create the very conditions in which researchers have shown that the Coronavirus thrives. The prospect of more deregulation and increased development of this kind led one Council leader to suggest that Johnson’s plans to change the planning system would exploit the housing crisis rather than resolve it.

100,000 social rent council homes a year

In his speech, Boris Johnson made the appallingly inappropriate claim that his plans represented “the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the second world war” and presented them in the context of ‘levelling up’. A genuinely radical policy that would level up the life chances of hundreds of thousands of people across the country is contained in the Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto. The commitment to build 100,000 social rent council homes would particularly level up the life chances of those in overcrowded and poor quality housing who live with a heightened risk of contracting the Coronavirus. But rather than commit to radically improve the lives of those most in need of support, Boris Johnson has chosen to support his wealthy developer friends.

This is what is wrong with his building plans and these flawed plans should be robustly challenged. So we call upon the Labour Party, in the spirit of the 2019 manifesto, to challenge the Conservative government to match the commitment to build the hundreds of thousands of decent, secure and genuinely affordable social rent council homes our country desperately needs, and in so doing, to address the devastating effects of both crises that are impacting our country at this most difficult of times.

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