Six things we learned from Gavin Barwell's housing white paper event
Housing minister Gavin Barwell came to Birmingham yesterday as part of his regional tour of events to meet housing professionals to discuss the housing white paper. Policy and practice officer David Pipe looks at six things we learned from the minister.
1) The white paper represents a significant change of government strategy
Gavin Barwell set out an overall vision which is very different from what we have heard from previous Conservative ministers.
Press coverage has so far largely focused on the shift away from home ownership, and indeed the minister was very candid in accepting that it had been “wrong” for government policy to focus exclusively on this. While reiterating that a majority of people still aspire to own their homes, he accepted that there will always be a proportion of people who cannot buy, and a further proportion who cannot buy at the moment. He said that it was vital for government to also have an offer for them.
This isn’t the only significant change however. Barwell also said that previous government policy had been too focused on demand (ie: boosting affordability through schemes like help to buy). He said that he thought the biggest change brought about by the white paper would be a switch towards focusing principally on supply.
2) The white paper is a long term strategy
Most of the measures set out in the white paper are not quick fixes, they are intended to have an impact over the longer term. This too represents a shift in government thinking and the minister also acknowledged that, once policy is established, there will be a need for a period of stability. He said that he recognised that constant chopping and changing of government policy is unhelpful and that, where possible, he wants to offer certainty and stability.
3) Government may be prepared to look again at arrangements for right to buy receipts
Barwell described himself as a supporter of the right to buy, but he accepted that it could only be justified as a policy if homes are replaced. Where ministers have previously maintained that one-for-one replacement is on track, Barwell accepted that this is unlikely to remain the case as larger numbers of sales approach the three year deadline for replacement. He appeared to suggest that he could be prepared to look again at this issue.
4) There will be no blanket raising of council borrowing caps, but individual councils might be able to strike a deal
The minister ruled out an across the board lifting of council borrowing caps. However he said that he was prepared to make bespoke deals with individual councils who wanted to build, and he appeared to suggest that this could include looking at their capacity to borrow. He also said that he was supportive of councils who are setting up housing companies to develop outside of the housing revenue account.
5) The sale of higher value council homes will go ahead
Government’s decision not to implement pay to stay for council tenants and to scale back their ambition to build 200,000 starter homes had led to some speculation that plans to sell higher value council homes as they become vacant could also be shelved. However the Minister was clear that this policy was a manifesto commitment and that it is necessary to fund the extension of the right to buy to housing associations. As such it will go ahead, and councils should look out for a consultation on the detail.
6) Institutional investment is central to government’s plans to improve private renting
The minister is very keen on build to rent and institutional investment in the private rented sector. He argued that this not only increases overall levels of house building but that it is also an opportunity to change the nature of private renting. He particularly cited longer, ‘family friendly’ tenancies as an example of this, arguing that while small scale individual landlords often have good reasons for needing to offer six to 12-month tenancies, institutional investors would be able offer greater security.
More generally, Barwell did acknowledge that short term tenancies are a problem for many renters but described his position as one of seeking to “strike a balance” between the needs of these tenants and the needs of landlords. He sees encouraging more institutional investment as a means of delivering change, over the much longer term, without resorting to “heavy handed” regulation of part time landlords.
David Pipe is policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing.