The state getting stuck in on housing: Conservative manifesto

Lewis Johnston

Parliamentary Affairs Manager (RICS)

After the Labour and Liberal Democrats released their election pitches, the Conservatives finally unleashed their manifesto on Thursday. In a clear bid to present a distinct doctrine of ‘Mayism’ the Prime Minister and her team have decisively rejected the free market fundamentalism that characterised the Conservative party for decades.

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The manifesto consistently makes the case for an active role for the state, particularly when it comes to housing, immigration and the labour market.

Surprising commitments on council housing and the return of HIPs?

The manifesto explicitly reiterates the Conservative pledge from the last election to deliver a million homes by 2020, and has gone further by pledging half a million more by 2022. The Prime Minister is clearly doubling-down on something she hopes will be a defining feature of her administration; whether the capacity exists to deliver on this ambition remains to be seen.

We are only three months on from the Housing White Paper, so most of the manifesto proposals are an advancement of that policy framework. There is more lofty talk of encouraging Modern Methods of Construction (MMC), getting more delivery bodies involved in the supply of housing, and taking steps to unlock land for development. These are all important goals, but as with the White Paper, there is still a lack of clarity as to the route map for achieving them.

In a remarkable step for a Conservative manifesto, a whole paragraph is dedicated to helping councils to build more homes. Admittedly, the newly announced Council Housing Deals are heavily caveated; the manifesto insists they will only be reached with “those councils who will build high-quality, sustainable and integrated communities”, but this is nonetheless a striking commitment from the party that rolled-back the role of councils in housing in the 1980s.

On a related issue, the housing proposals are notable for what is not included – there is no mention of the right-to-buy for Housing Association tenants; could this be a signal that the Government plans to row back from the policy?

Finally, there is a pledge to “reform and modernise the home-buying process so it is more efficient and less costly”. This laudable aspiration was beefed up by later comments from Michael Gove, who said we could “look again” at Home Information Packs (HIPs). Gove is no longer a Minister and we will wait for more detail on this, but the idea is clearly being floated.

Migration and skills

The Prime Minister has made it clear that her Government intends to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. Whilst this was included in the last Conservative Manifesto, its inclusion this time around is a statement of intent with renewed vigour. The concern is that such a target will take no account of the need for skilled workers – we must not sacrifice the needs of the UK construction sector for the sake of an arbitrary target.

Currently, 17% of the UK’s construction workforce were born outside of the UK, and it is a recurring concern across the built environment sector that excessive restrictions on immigration could jeopardise the delivery of the housing, infrastructure and construction projects the UK badly needs.

The skills issue is even starker in the context of Brexit.  Recent RICS figures showed that 8% of the UK construction workforce comes from the EU leaving 176,500 construction jobs at risk should we lose access to the single market without alternative plans.  This could jeopardise a predicted £500bn pipeline of projects.

The manifesto rightly emphasises the importance of technical education and training to boost the capacity of the domestic workforce, but this is a medium to long-term measure, and companies need assurances that they can access the skills they need now to ensure the health of the UK economy.

In some areas the manifesto acknowledges this, and commits to working with the Migration Advisory Committee to better align our visa system with the needs of our economy. However, the Immigration Skills Charge levied on companies employing migrant labour has been doubled to £2,000 – not a policy to reassure employers worried about the consequences of Brexit on the skills shortage – especially when 8% of construction workers are EU nationals. Our election document Priorities for the Built Environment calls on all parties to commit to an immigration system that helps not hinders the movement of skilled construction workers.

Infrastructure

The case for infrastructure investment is mainly presented as a key pillar of the industrial strategy, and particularly as a means of boosting productivity. The £3 billion National Productivity Investment Fund is pitched as a way of targeting spending on digital infrastructure, rail and local transport networks to maximise value. This is a welcome approach, and we have long called for an infrastructure policy based on strategic need and economic return. We would like the next Government to work closely with the National Infrastructure Commission to this end.

Elsewhere, infrastructure is mainly mentioned with regards to new government powers to intervene in market deals. Specifically, the manifesto pledges to prevent foreign ownership of important infrastructure from undermining security or essential services. This is an interesting stance given the urgent need for foreign capital investment in the UK infrastructure network.

The Conservatives were the last major UK-wide party to publish their manifesto, and as we enter the final three weeks of the election, there are clear and distinct policy platforms on offer from all parties. We will continue to work with all parties to ensure that the built environment is given the focus and attention it needs whoever forms the next government after 8 June.

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