I arrived in Birmingham mid conference. In a great improvement on last year’s conference, I didn’t have to run the gauntlet of angry protesters to access my hotel. Birmingham is still a difficult city to navigate on foot as the road network and the car dominate. Unsurprisingly I didn’t see one cyclist on the roads during my visit.
The fringe programme this year was not short on housing content. In fact I saw our new Housing and Planning Minister, Gavin Barwell MP, speaking at a good number of his 17 fringe housing events.
At the House Builders Federation panel, Lord Gary Porter was clear that the private sector won’t build more than 200,000 units a year and that we will only get scale if the local authorities build. Hyde Housing Association’s Elaine welcomed the move to encourage SME developers. She also wants more Private Rented Sector (PRS) so homes can be built out quicker. She explained that 80% of housing associations don’t develop and that they focus on management.
At the same event, Gavin Barwell made the point that planning consents are being granted but are not being built out quickly enough. We need to build quicker and must broaden the range of those building. We also need more institutional investment into PRS and custom building. He confirmed that the government’s emerging strategy will be published in a white paper later this year. He said that the government has the ambition to address this critical issue. He recognised that it’s not just about the total number of units but it’s about where you build them and joining the dots with infrastructure.
Next stop was the Westminster City Council Planning roundtable led by Deputy Leader Cllr Robert Davis. Westminster property owners and estates were well represented. Neil Thompson, President of Westminster Property Association, introduced the discussion and talked about the importance of collaboration. Post Brexit, he said, we need to be better at explaining the benefits of London. Publica’s Lucy Musgrave, an expert in urbanism and the public realm, referred to the changing geographies arising from the extraordinary revolution of Crossrail.
The far ranging discussion included the importance of balanced communities, the problems of Permitted Development Rights, gentrification and the review of space standards. It was suggested that buildings should be designed for repurposing in order to extend their life and they should have built in the structural ability to add extra floors.
The highpoint of the conference for me was the Mishcon de Reya and London Communications Agency Dinner: “From town hall to Whitehall: will confrontation or collaboration mark the way forward?” It was attended by 23 senior politicians and developers and chaired by Estates Gazette Editor, Damian Wild. The event proved so popular this year that we had a waiting list. We were delighted to have the Labour Deputy Mayor for Housing James Murray as our guest speaker. This caused quite a furore as it is unusual for a Labour politician to attend the Conservative conference.
Damian Wild opened the debate asking whether the guests agreed with Sajid Javid’s assessment that house building ‘is a moral duty’. Mark Prisk MP pointed out that it was about providing shelter as a number of charities do. The shift away from starter homes as the flagship policy to mixed tenure was welcomed. It was generally agreed that we need collaboration between public and private sector to meet housing need. Liz Peace stressed the need to free up councils to satisfy housing need. There were calls round the table for the government to take the lead and to come up with some creative thinking. Pocket’s Marc Vlessing highlighted the need to focus on modular homes as at present mortgage providers won’t fund them.
London Zones 3, 4, 5 and 6 are seen as having the ability to solve the housing problem. But as Argent’s Nick Searl stressed, we need to think about creating places and not just units. Key to this will be working collaboratively in a joined up way with the relevant local authorities. ‘Let’s just build’ was a refrain we heard round the table coupled with a call for bold decisions. Housing had been treated as a political football – although one guest thought that it ‘had become a bit sexy’.
We were delighted to have James Murray, Deputy Mayor for Housing, join us for our Conservative Party Conference dinner especially as solving the housing problem will need work across parties. He confirmed that collaboration had characterised the last few months since Sadiq Khan’s election. He was asked if the GLA has enough leverage over bodies such as TfL to get them to bring forward land. It was felt round the table that public sector land should be put forward as equity so as to provide ongoing revenue later. It was suggested that the National Audit Office needed to be challenged on the meaning of best value.
There was surprisingly little mention of Brexit except to say that the ‘Brexit silver lining’ was the move away from the OJEU procurement rules.
The night continued over drinks and then moved on to the Westminster Devolution Reception with a speech by The Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, Sajid Javid. Many of the delegates were surprised to see our Labour Deputy Mayor, James Murray. The only similar precedent I heard mentioned was Ken Livingstone’s visit to the conservative conference some years ago. Have there been any others?
Next morning’s first panel session was in the relative tranquillity of the London Lounge with (again) Housing Minister Gavin Barwell MP, Mount Anvil CEO Killian Hurley, Hyde Group CEO, Elaine Bailey, and chaired by Anne Ashworth from the Times. The Minister confirmed he was the ninth Housing Minister in 10 Years and that ‘all have struggled’ because, as he said, ‘there is no silver bullet’. He wants more homes of every type, a mix of tenures so some will be built out quickly. Pocket Living was mentioned as an interesting model to look at. His advice was to engage early with local decision makers. He was also clear that planning applications should only be called in if they raise an issue of national significance.
The next panel for the Young Women Conservatives also featured Killian Hurley and Gavin Barwell so covered some of the same ground. There was a focus on the need for skills to get more young people into construction. Hurley felt that developers would be happy to pay additional planning fees to help resource overstretched planning authorities.
Gavin Barwell was again on the panel for the next event. Surely he would be running out of new things to say! Juliet Samuel from the Telegraph referred back to the 1930s when there were no planning regulations and major building of ribbon developments resulted. The response was massive regulation. There was then enormous post war building after the war. To get enough housing do you regulate or deregulate? We have enough land, she said. Apparently, she said, 4% of the UK land is golf courses and only 2% housing. Gavin Barwell made some interesting new points. How do you incentivise communities to accept new building? People need to see what they are getting in return for agreeing to new homes, he said. How can we improve the CPO process? How do we get rid of delays caused by utility companies? Resourcing of planning? Developers would pay more for a better service. We need to derisk planning, he said, especially for SME developers. We are too reliant on a few big developers who say honestly that they can’t build enough homes. We need to encourage innovation and off site construction. We also have a lack of institutional investment compare to other countries. He queried whether we are using infrastructure to maximise our housing opportunities? The Minister confirmed that we need more housing of every tenure, not just for sale.
My next and final fringe was a planning session chaired by Bob Neill MP. Gavin Barwell was billed to attend. We were told he was on his way but ‘had been caught up with the media’ He didn’t appear so I can’t tell you if there was more to tell us on planning. All I can say is that he had impressed his conference audiences with his passion and obvious understanding of his housing brief.
Lunch was interesting. It was an informal visit to Pizza Express to catch up with some property contacts. When I arrived there was an additional guest who looked familiar but clearly was not a property type. It was only when the waiter came with bill at the end of lunch, and announced that -since they were graced by the presence of double Olympic gold medallist and OBE – they couldn’t possibly make a charge, that it dawned on me that I was in the company of the legendary rower, James Cracknell. He is also incidentally a prospective Conservative Party candidate.