Wednesday 19 June 2019 5:40 am

Our pessimistic country needs a One Nation housing crusade

It’s the political equivalent of playing Pac-Man, while nodding your mullet to Wham! – our housing policy seems stuck in the 1980s, like a Care Bear in a leg-warmer.

The Conservative leadership candidates have all served as part of a government whose core housing strategy hails from that Duran Duran decade: subsidised social housing sell-offs and a pump-primed private housing market.

There are a few hopeful signs of thinking beyond this eighties groove.

Michael Gove has suggested a possible national housing fund, financed by “Brexit Bonds”, which would buy land for housing development.

The Conservative think tank Policy Exchange has also produced some interesting ideas on combating Nimbyism by making new housing more attractive to local residents, an ambition for New Towns, and a review of Help to Buy.

But to deal with our chronic housing deficit, all of the candidates need to think on a much bigger scale. Rather than trying to purely out-Thatcherite each other, as seems to be the fashion of the moment, they could draw on other less combative Conservative traditions.

For example, a One Nation housing crusade, like that of Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan in the 1950s which delivered 300,000 homes a year, could help heal our divided country, solve our housing shortage, and combat Labour’s homes-for-the-many challenge.

First, we would need to be more open-minded about who builds and funds these new homes.

No UK housing shortfall has ever been bridged without the state taking a major role in funding and building homes, so this crusade should be based, just as it was under Macmillan, on free-market, deregulated and incentivised private development combined with large-scale council house-building.

Done well, public sector house-building does not drive out private enterprise. Indeed, private and council house building peaked together in the fifties and sixties.

This grand, nationwide alliance of the public and private sectors would help us build homes for everyone using the full range of housing policy solutions: private house-building, build-to-rent (with a generous proportion of genuinely affordable private rent), and mass council house development.

Second, we must use the vast range of modern tools and technologies now available to us. Macmillan’s motto for delivering housing at scale was “standardisation, simplification, and pre-fabrication”.

Today, technology could deliver that vision to the power of 10.

Using modular systems, you can build an attractive ready-to-live-in semi-detached home in 14 days for less than £70,000. The only thing currently stopping us from solving the housing crisis is our own political will.

Third, we need creative solutions to the question of financing. Many local authorities have closed their house-building departments in recent years, due to severe funding cuts. We should revive these departments. After all, many Scottish councils have successful house-building programmes, so we know it can be done.

However, we all also know that money is short and that the state cannot do this alone. I suggest “Council Housing 2.0” as part of the solution to these constraints.

Council Housing 2.0 would be built and owned by giant, long-term rent-sharing joint ventures between local authorities, pension funds, and other major land-owners.

Post-Brexit reforms to the procurement rules should make these part-public, part-private corporations easier to create. They could also lead in allocating land to a variety of different tenures – build-to-sell, build-to-rent, and council – to ensure that local needs, rather than just build-to-sell profit, govern the building and release of housing.

These joint ventures would give local authorities a public asset and income stream to enhance their solvency (Macmillan called it “the family silver”), and provide pension funds with long-term returns to match their liabilities.

Finally, we must shake off the shackles of housing pessimism that says this cannot be done. This is, in fact, the perfect time for the government to step in and realise a vastly ambitious housing policy. In doing so, it could also help solve many of the UK’s wider problems.

For example, the skilled manufacturing workforces of Bridgend and Swindon, left behind by the departing car-makers, could be re-trained to design and build green, sustainable and 5G-enabled modular housing.

The government could create a network of new construction colleges to complement these manufacturing centres, giving thousands of young people the chance to build successful careers in 21st-century house-building.

Looking to the future, an innovative British modular housing industry could take the lead in eliminating housing shortages across the western world.

We should stop seeing our housing deficit as a problem and instead seize it as an opportunity to create a great new global British industry.

A One Nation housing crusade, with council and modular housing on the frontline, could be the optimistic turnaround story that our currently pessimistic country needs.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.