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Getting Britain Building – finally?

I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound’.

Much like the fabled curate’s egg, the Government’s Housing Strategy released on Monday is good in parts. But only parts.

The fact that it exists at all is good. As is the fact that a chunk of it takes up the slogan that Modern Masonry, the BMF, the FMB, British Precast and the rest of the Get Britain Building Campaign have been shouting for the last few years.

Good, too, is the part where it seems to recognise that the construction industry is a vital cog in the engine that fuels the economy.

But, despite the size of the document (more of an ostrich’s egg really), it does seem to be a little light on actual concrete detail.

Helping first time buyers to get on the housing ladder is, clearly, a good thing, as they provide the impetus for those who were once first-timers but who wish to now move to do so.

There was a report last week which showed that first-time buyers on an average wage would have to spend everything they earn, bar rent and bills, for four years in order to get sufficient deposit together to buy an average-priced house (10 years in pricey old London).

So the mortgage help to ensure that those who wish to borrow money don’t have to save up for a gazillion years is also another good part, and something that commentators- including H+H UK’s Mark Oliver- have been arguing the need for for years.

Cameron said to the CBI on Monday that “lenders won’t lend, buyers can’t buy, so builders don’t build” and that that is the reasoning behind part of the strategy. The last Labour Government also tried to kickstart the economy via house-building, pumping money into the Kickstart programme.

Of course, houses still have to be affordable so part of the Housing Strategy is aimed at boosting that sector. However, it doesn’t matter how much that nice young housing minister Grant Shapps tweets about how this strategy is so much better than Labour’s. Under his watch, affordable housing starts have plummeted, falling 97% compared with the same period a year ago, according to the Government’s own figures.

And wasn’t it a Tory Minister, Eric Pickles, who wrote to councils telling them to disregard the regional housing targets set by Labour? The National Housing Federation reckon that this action cost the nation 100,000 planned homes.

I’ll confess, I haven’t read the entire document yet, just snippets of it, but it does strike me that much of it is long on rhetoric and objectives, but short of strategy (despite the title) and actual cold, hard cash.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that house prices in this country are way too high for the bulk of the working population’s earnings. And I say that as someone who has benefitted enormously from the rise. In my, admittedly affluent, corner of the south-east house prices increased by roughly 600% between 1990 and 2010.

Not sure how any government Housing Strategy could cope with that.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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