We were delighted to welcome Lord Kerslake, former Head of the Civil Service and enthusiastic contributor to the housing debate, as guest speaker at the latest in our series of political breakfast meetings. The cross bench peer discussed his response to the provisions of the Housing & Planning Act, the economic impact of Brexit on the housebuilding industry and his vision for dealing with London’s housing crisis.
Vastly experienced in government affairs, particularly housing, planning and devolution, Lord Kerslake has previously served as Chief Executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, Permanent Secretary for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and in March 2015 was introduced as a Crossbench life peer. He describes himself as a ‘young whipper snapper’ in the House of Lords.
Lord Kerslake began his remarks by outlining his points of contention with certain aspects of the Housing & Planning Bill (in its original form). These included:
- Starter Homes being used to replace affordable homes; he described them as a product that is ‘over-regimented, yet ill-defined’. However, he was encouraged by the Government’s decision to increase the discount taper
- The extension of Right to Buy to include Housing Associations, which he felt would lead to an even greater loss of affordable properties, while forcing local authorities to pick up the bill for the Right to Buy discounts
- A one size fits all approach; the original bill failed to acknowledge the regional divide – solutions to the need for housing that would work in regional towns and commuter hubs cannot be applied in the capital
- If household salaries exceed £40,000 in London or £30,000 outside the capital, social tenants will be expected to pay at or near market rent
Lord Kerslake suggested that public and private sector development should be promoted in conjunction, to address the issue of deliverability. He also highlighted the role of the planning sector in providing high quality homes. Ultimately, he felt the Act would not deliver its stated intention of building more homes, instead prioritising home ownership over the need for affordable and social rental homes.
When considering the impact of Brexit, Lord Kerslake talked of the recent economic ‘shock’ and its impact on housebuilders. He criticised the attitude that the private sector alone should be relied upon to build homes, reiterating that public sector bodies also have that responsibility. Lord Kerslake went on to acknowledge that cuts to Civil Service budgets had the potential to slow down the delivery of the Act.
Specifically regarding London’s housing crisis, something he considers an ‘immensely important’ issue for the new government, he recommended that:
- Central Government should devolve greater power to City Hall and to London boroughs
- A London Housing Commission should be established with cross-borough housing powers
- There should be a focus on doubling the supply of homes through a major, city-wide affordable housing programme
Perhaps controversially, Lord Kerslake concluded by suggesting that green belt land around transport hubs needed to be considered for development. This would be on the understanding that developers would have to invest in improving another part of the Green Belt instead.
He concluded by stating that innovation is missing in the sector – he compared housebuilding with car manufacturing, observing that materials and methods used to create cars fifty years ago are long gone, while we continue for the most part to build homes brick on brick.