Cover Story: Lord Richard Best, Peer of the Housing Realm

Lord of the Hanover

Lord Richard Best may not be a roundhead, but he certainly takes pride in being a parliamentarian – and he thinks it’s time the Government stopped being cavalier about the housing crisis

By Mark Cantrell

From Housing magazine, June-July 2014

THERE are times when a question misfires, and this was possibly one of them. In a sense, though, the answer it provoked seemed to encapsulate the essence of the conversation.

Lord Richard Best had spoken frankly and thoughtfully on a range of housing topics, but that final question – was he hopeful that we’ll find a solution to this protracted housing crisis? – casually thrown in as an invitation for an upbeat closure, inadvertently struck a rather sombre note.

“No,” he said, simply. “It’s going to take 20 years, and actuarially I might just be around to see the better times that follow, but I am quite close to ‘not in my lifetime’, I think. People have got to raise the stakes – a greater sense of urgency is needed.”

That’s a sobering thought. Lord Best isn’t alone in facing up to mortality’s ticking clock; none of us are getting any younger. The housing crisis, meanwhile, continues its rampage, ravaging dreams and aspirations, cramping lives, and curtailing opportunities for both social and economic progress. At the heart of it all, however, the housing crisis is in fact a human crisis; a lot of people won’t live to see the easing of this critical lack of affordability in housing, if not for themselves then certainly for their children or grandchildren.

That’s easily overlooked in the deluge of statistics and guidance, political rhetoric and policy goals, corporate mission statements and technocratic homilies.

But despite his frank prognosis, Lord Best is anything but a defeatist; the beast can be tamed, if we’re willing to tackle the problems decisively, and to break from many cherished totems of the past.

One of these is to bring to heel an ideological trope that has long-held the main political parties enthralled: the belief that the market, and nothing but the market, is the best arbiter of what needs to be done. Not so, suggests Lord Best. It has its place, but the time has come for government to bite the bullet and take a strong interventionist approach to rebalance the housing eco-system.

“[A solution] requires the action of governments, local and central, to make things happen. We’ve got to the position now where we just cannot leave things to the market to handle. We’ve tried that. We’ve had about 20 years of seeing whether the market could fill the gaps [in supply] – and it hasn’t worked,” said Lord Best.

“We know, we’ve tested this theory to destruction; we know that the market on its own will produce about half, maybe just a fraction above half, of the homes that we need, so we’re left with the question, what do we do about the other half?

“For three decades it used to be roughly 50:50 council housing and housebuilding for sale, then we cut out the council housing bit. We talked about the housing associations taking the place of councils, but they only did about 25-30% of what councils did, so that left a wide gap.

“The housebuilders also dip in times of recession, of course, so they are not a reliable source of their half. They’ll do half in ordinary circumstances but they won’t do much better than that in the good times. We had the boom years; they still only did about half of what was needed, and we’ve had them in the bad times and they fell away then like anybody else.”

The failure down the decades to ensure enough homes are built is what has more or less landed us in this mess, as Lord Best reminded, and it has ‘snowballed’ over time, with housing delivery plodding contentedly behind hastening demand.

“The next generation is held to ransom by the market, it has to pay through the nose, either getting not brilliant, not secure accommodation in the private sector, or really enormous monthly outgoings on mortgage repayments,” he said. “Neither of these is satisfactory; they’re very bad for the wider economy and very bad for the families bringing up children, so we have really got it wrong. We need to get back into building big time, and I don’t think that happens through relying on the housebuilders.

“They will do about half of what’s needed; they always did do about half. The mistake we made was to think they would do the other half as well. It’s never been in their interests, or in their whole business plan, to produce all the houses everybody needs. They need a tight market; they need rising prices to make their profits.”

And that’s where intervention comes into play, to establish – or rather re-establish – a mixed economy in housing. The Government, Lord Best suggests, is far from ready, but there are signs that the understanding is beginning to shine through the tinted spectacles of political outlook.

“They recognise the need to build a lot more homes, but I think that the radical steps that will eventually become required in crisis – in an emergency, which is really what we’re working ourselves up to –they’re not yet ready for that,” he said. “It’s going to take more than the measures we’ve got so far. In incremental steps, they’re doing some good things… So they’ve come up with some bits and pieces, which haven’t been all bad, but the package as a whole, the mix, is not strong enough. We’re going to need more interventionist policies. They’re not up for it yet, but there’s some signs of interest in taking more drastic measures.”

But what of the Labour Party’s emerging position? Well, much of a muchness, Lord Best suggested.

“Labour is saying rather similar things to the current Government, which is more should be done and more homes should be built, but they’re not coming out with a bold set of policies as are going to be needed to make a real difference – yet,” he said.

“They are talking about 200,000 homes a year. It’s actually about 250,000 that we need, but who’s counting? We’re only doing about 130,000-something at the moment, so it’s a big change and improvement. I think we will see more from Labour, but whether it’s Conservative or Labour, or even LibDems who might be in coalition with either of those two after the election, it’s about interventionist policies that do things on some scale, and recognise that we’ve got such a big issue that you’ve got to take big decisions.”

As a crossbench peer, Lord Best is beholden to no party, and has none of the political baggage that comes with a party rosette, but it means he’s in no position to make those decisions, only seek to influence the decision-makers. In that sense, you could say he’s not unlike those working in the wider housing sector; he can present the evidence, make the arguments, lobby ministers, pull together the experts to make their case, but as a peer, he is located in the very heart of the political process, and that makes him harder for ministers to dismiss.

Just don’t call him a politician; Lord Best very much regards himself as a parliamentarian. The distinction is subtle, but important, and has been rather lost in the hurly burly of modern politics; it’s one MPs might once have made, too, with some sincerity, before the rise of those vote-harvesting machines known as political parties.

Not a problem Lord Best faces; he can serve as a principled pragmatist, representing the housing sector according to his own judgement and experience born of his long and distinguished career as a housing association chief, head honcho of the National Housing Federation’s forerunner, and chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, to name but a few. Indeed, it’s kind of ironic, and perhaps a tad disconcerting for those interested in constitutional reform, that a peer in the upper chamber is effectively fulfilling Edmund Burke’s notions of representative democracy once expected of the elected lower chamber.

Outside of Parliament, Lord Best retains an active engagement with the sector. Among his ongoing roles, he’s been the chair of Hanover Housing since 2006. The organisation provides retirement housing and extra care facilities, with around 19,000 properties on its books, and that returns us to that nagging issue of age. Lord Best confesses a “fascination” with demographic change and the challenges of housing an ageing society.

“This is not least because of my own great age and the recognition that you don’t get younger each year – it seems to work the other way,” he joked. “Because of that I am absolutely fascinated by this debate on how we are going to sort the costs and hazards of an ageing population, with housing as a really central instrument in doing that, and I think that we can. It is the key to an awful lot of the ways in which people can retain independence.”

More than that, he believes addressing the problems of housing an ageing society will go a long way towards tackling the wider crisis; the key is in delivering the kind of housing that those in ‘extended middle age’ will find attractive enough to be encouraged to downsize. Lord Best set out his ideas in a collection of essays Hanover published to mark its 50th anniversary. The organisation invited thinktanks from across the political spectrum to present their ideas on the issue of an ageing society, and Lord Best provided the final chapter, appropriately entitled ‘Accommodating an Extended Middle Age’.

“Nothing happens nowadays between 55 and 75 and then you get old. It can happen quite quickly, or not – some people keep on going – but it is really an extended middle age,” he said. “During that time, people in extended middle age can solve the problems for the next generation by moving out of three- and four-bedroom houses. They can [also] solve the problem for the older generation themselves by getting sorted now in somewhere that’s manageable and they can afford the costs.”

Hanover is on a “mission” to do just that, he said, by providing homes that will appeal to people in this extended middle age group and so encourage them to downsize. In so doing, it will test Lord Best’s theory about it being the key to our long-standing housing woes.

“These people in extended middle age hold the key to solving the problems of young and old on either side of them, but they don’t see it,” he said. “They sit there and dig in: ‘you’ll never move me, I’ll go out in a box’. We’ve got to change that.”

One might say the same for the politicians.

This article first appeared as the cover story for the June-July 2014 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently republished on the Housing Excellence website, 18 July 2014

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