Barwell is ridiculously optimistic
The housing minister’s assertions that Brexit will not affect the speed and quality of reforms outlined in the housing white paper do not match up with the reality of a depleted and overworked civil service.
Following the events of last year – Brexit, Trump, Leicester City winning the Premiership – and more than 40 years working in the construction industry, there is little that makes me pause and wonder at the meaning of life any more. However, the nonchalant, misinformed sense of complacency displayed by housing minister Gavin Barwell recently has left me slack-jawed in amazement.
Barwell says that Brexit won’t delay housing reform and that the changes brought about by the referendum result will be “profound”, but apparently it’s business as usual in his department. To say that the effect of Brexit is “profound” is a bit like stating that the effect of the iceberg on the Titanic was “potentially disruptive”.
The ever-optimistic Barwell predicts an influx of Whitehall staff working to deliver into reality the proposals outlined in last month’s “Fixing our broken housing market” white paper – something that aims to speed up the delivery of new homes and encourage new entrants to the housing market. The forthcoming changes to the planning regime and attendant impact on housing is not an insignificant matter. It has the potential to greatly affect our industry and its customers.
Barwell’s comments on his department’s staffing capacity come despite a National Audit Office (NAO) report last month that questioned the civil service’s ability to deliver on key policy areas at the same time as handling the UK’s departure from the European Union.
The NAO said that as of February 2017, the civil service has created more than a thousand new roles in the new departments and elsewhere to prepare for exiting the EU and negotiating new trade agreements. Apparently only two-thirds of the roles have been filled, mostly by transferring staff from elsewhere in government. The NAO stated: “There has not been a commensurate increase in the overall size of the civil service.”
So, in summary, that is far fewer people than leading consultants say is required to solely negotiate Brexit – most of them have been moved from existing jobs, and even then one-third of the posts are still vacant.
However, cheery Barwell is still confident that housing is at the top of the prime minister’s list of priorities, apparently saying of his own department’s resources: “Given the priority [of housing], I would have thought that we’re going to want more people working in that area.”
You may recall that Theresa May promised an affordable housing programme. Key measures mooted in “Fixing our broken housing market” included offering councils greater powers to drive the delivery of new housing, with the potential to seize sites that developers were too slow in bringing forward. Also included were proposals for “standard open-book Section 106” arrangements and reform of the Community Infrastructure Levy. The housing minister is now saying that while some of the measures – which are open to consultation until 2 May – would clearly require new legislation, his team was exploring a range of options to implement the proposals as quickly as possible.
The statistics to support his assertions of speedy action are not encouraging. In this context it is worth revisiting some figures. In 1969-70 local councils built 175,550 houses, in 2015-16 they started work on just 1,480. The trusts, foundations and housing associations that were due to take over the role of councils as builders created 22,610 in the previous financial year. Most experts say we need around 250,000- 300,000 houses built a year for the next five years just to stand still – due to population growth and more people living in smaller family units.
Brexit is potentially going to have a massive effect on our ability to reach these targets in several ways. Legislatively, as the new Neighbourhood Planning Bill is passing through both houses, minds may be elsewhere – possibly entirely focused on Brexit. I am not convinced that Barwell will get the influx of civil service talent he needs to draft competent legislation contributing to either this bill or the National Planning Policy Framework document. The bill and the framework are needed to provide practical, implementable measures through the legislative and planning process. A number of the proposed changes would mean the further empowerment of local government officials to decide who builds what, where, how and when. My fear is that bad laws will make for bad practice.
In terms of the commercial realities brought about by the triggering of Article 50, as the pound fluctuates over the next two years, wobbly currency markets will disrupt contractors’ supply chains and costs, and likely deter EU workers from desiring employment in the UK if the value of their wages goes up and down unexpectedly. This labour resource is something many in the industry, particularly in London, have come to rely on.
Barwell may view Brexit as “profound”. Many of us see it in more negative and stark terms. But then, perhaps as a minister who voted to remain, working in an increasingly tribal party, he has to put political pragmatism above the vicissitudes of the real world. I am worried that we are all going to pay the price for half-baked, under-examined legislation which could lack the appropriate vigilance and scrutiny.