Cover Story: Election blues, Cameron takes the house

Cameron’s “sweetest victory” has a bitter taste for housing

The unexpected election of a full-blooded Conservative Government has sent the housing world into some disarray, but as it contemplates its fortunes under this new regime, it may find some of its gravest threats invigorate its greatest strengths

By Mark Cantrell

First published in the June/July print edition of Housing magazine

REVENGE may be a dish best served cold, but if there’s any consolation for the housing world – still reeling from the shock ‘Tory Spring’ that returned a majority Conservative Government – it’s that David Cameron has bigger fish to fry.

In any case, when it comes to dishing out payback for the housing world’s ‘disloyalty’ prior to the election, Cameron may already feel a sense of ‘vengeance is mine’ with his proposal to extend Right-to-Buy to housing associations. Even if the policy doesn’t make it onto the statute books, resisting it will serve to harass and distract an already embattled sector.

A slap in the face, followed by a dismissal, isn’t much to show for months of hard campaigning and years of lobbying for a resolution to the housing crisis. For now, at least, it seems evident that the new Government can dismiss the housing world’s major players as a defeated foe.

The Prime Minister, meanwhile, no doubt haunted by the experiences of his predecessors – Margaret Thatcher, John Major, even Tony Blair – and the somewhat bruising end to their premierships is already looking ahead to his exit strategy. He has indicated he will not do a third term. If he holds to this purpose, he won’t be in office come the 2020 general election, so he can’t afford to hang about and gloat.

Obviously, the Conservative Party will want a new leader bedded in well before the next battle for Number 10 commences, which leaves Cameron a tight time-scale in which to secure his legacy. Inevitably, then, the next three years or so are critical to the way his political career will be remembered; he will be looking to make his mark on the history books – and on the country too – so he’s unlikely to be over-concerned with the housing question.

Cameron has set his sights on reforming Britain’s relationship with Europe; it’s a choice he may yet live to regret. The issue has long been a thorny one and it has bloodied the party before, just ask John Major. One wrong move and the Prime Minister may find his quest for a favourable legacy shredded by internal party strife – along with other elements of his legislative ambitions, lost in the fray as collateral damage.

Away from the European question, with a slender majority to contend with, this may not be the easiest Parliament for Cameron to steer. Rowdy backbenchers and a fractious right wing may become a particularly irksome source of opposition; a distraction at the very least. Quite what this will entail for his Government’s legislative programme is anybody’s guess right now. We’re still in that ‘pause for breath’ phase, as everyone takes stock, assesses their position, and braces for the resumption of the game.

In that regard, we find ourselves accommodating to the new normal, where the present is but an echo of the past, and where those who once urgently harangued the politicians to take the housing crisis seriously now pledge their vows of fealty to this unexpected Government. At least that’s how it feels.

“As always CIH now stands ready to work with the new government to use the knowledge and experience of housing professionals to inform the detail of policy design and implementation, so that the new housing policy framework moves us closer to, not further away from, creating a housing system that works for everyone,” said Gavin Smart, deputy chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH).

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation (NHF) said: “We will offer the new government all the support we can in helping them to end the housing crisis... We look forward to working with the new government and the new ministerial team constructively and in partnership to support the task ahead.”

Given their day jobs, this is exactly the kind of thing both men need to be seen to be saying, whatever their private thoughts; it’s all part of the time-honoured ritual of regime changeover, but for all that, to the outsider listening in such words possess an inescapable air of supplication about them.

The trouble is they are pledging to work with a Government that has amply demonstrated it is inimical to housing associations’ business interests – not to mention their oft-quoted social purpose. It’s a reasonable question to ask, then, and one the wider housing world must ask itself in the coming weeks and months: is it really possible to seek accommodation with a Government patently indifferent to its circumstances and requirements? For some, this may smack more of surrender than standing firm.

In fairness, that’s reading a lot into a couple of routine responses, and both Smart and Orr said more in their initial reaction to the election result. They reiterated the case for action to resolve the housing crisis, they expressed opposition to proposed Tory policies – since confirmed in the Queen’s Speech – and they pushed the case for change. But the statements felt listless, it must be said, as if the spokespersons are tired of covering the same old ground, as well they might.

The arguments regarding the housing crisis are now more than well-rehearsed; they feel dispirited by endless repetition. To some extent, it feels as if the sector is going through the motions, as it faces up to the prospect of five more years (at least) of repeating itself to politicians who present a deaf ear to the arguments while paying lip service to the housing crisis.

Actually, accusing the Government of ignoring the housing crisis is unfair. In a sense, the Queen’s Speech has provided the answer that the Homes for Britain campaign asked for: that government present a plan to take on the housing crisis within the first year of it coming into office. Well, the first full-blooded Tory legislative package since 1996 has done just that – with, of course, a huge focus on home ownership.

Cameron’s Government is offering over a million homes for sale at a massive knockdown price in an effort to boost the levels of home ownership. Okay, so that’s over a million homes that already exist and are currently owned by housing associations, but that’s Right-to-Buy for you. Meanwhile, the Housing Bill is also offering to build new homes, such as the cut-price so-called Starter Homes for a section of hard-pressed first-time buyers, and an intent to carry through reforms to help people build their own homes.

It’s a plan, of sorts; just not necessarily a very good one. Voices in the housing sector have decried the package – especially Right-to-Buy’s extension – as no solution to the housing crisis at all and likely to make it worse. Doubtless, that’s true. But in political calculus a solution only has to work for the right people. It remains to be seen if the Prime Minister’s backroom Machiavellis have got their sums right, but if he holds to his no-third-term pledge, then any fallout will be his successor’s problem.

As it is, Cameron might well ask – who’s gonna stop me? The clock is ticking, but the Prime Minister is currently in something of a grace period while opposition pulls itself together and regroups. The SNP is finding its feet in the Commons. The Labour Party, thrown into disarray, is embroiled in finding a new leader and in figuring out what it actually stands for.

The same might be said of the housing industry, as it ponders the way ahead: social purpose or commercial value; ditch the poor and the vulnerable for a ‘better class’ of customer or hold true to its principles? With all this in mind, it may seem that the likelihood of the social – or should we say the ‘affordable’ – housing industry’s representatives gaining a favourable ear in Cameron’s ‘court’ is slight – except insofar as they oil the wheels of his Government’s housing policies.

So it begs the question, and it’s one neither the CIH nor the NHF will like, but for the millions of people looking for a secure home at a price they can genuinely afford, just how relevant are either organisation likely to be five years from now, if not sooner? It’s a sobering question.

As the housing world ponders the answer to that one, it may be that Cameron’s political alchemists have miscalculated after all. Right-to-Buy is as much a threat to the assets of the commercial-in-tooth-and-claw brigade, as it is to those who are sticking to their social guns. Indeed, one might argue it’s a bigger threat to the former.

Certainly, it provides a focal point for unity of resistance. Far from neutering dissent within the housing world, Right-to-Buy has provided a galvanising stimulus. Both Smart and Orr demonstrated a resurgent vigour in their response to the confirmed policy; a chorus of voices – both from within the housing world and from walks of life beyond – have voiced opposition to the notion of extending Right-to-Buy to housing associations. It seems the policy has few friends outside of Cameron’s coterie of minions.

Suddenly, housing doesn’t seem quite so lonely and divided any more. Right-to-Buy remains a clear and present danger, but if the sector can forge the right alliances to capitalise on this near-unanimous declaration of dissent, it might finally be able to build the kind of opposition that ministers are unable to dismiss.

In dishing out a little Right-to-Buy revenge, David Cameron might well have invoked his Nemesis. We shall see. Remember to keep the dish chilled.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2015 print edition of Housing magazine. It subsequently reappeared on the Housing Excellence website, 24 June 2015

Main photo: Arron Hoare (Crown Copyright)

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