The National Housing Federation isn’t used to Prime Ministers attending its annual conference. In fact, it’s not used to getting to know the same housing minister from year to year, as the job is the subject of so many reshuffles. Today Theresa May proudly told the body that represents housing associations that she was the first Prime Minister in history to speak at this event, adding:
‘To me, that speaks volumes about the way in which social housing has, for too long and under successive governments, been pushed to the edge of the political debate.’
Her speech then went on to say that she had made it her ‘personal mission to fix our broken housing system’ and that she wanted to end the ‘stigma’ around social housing.
This all sounds very admirable, but it is also strangely reminiscent of the sort of speeches that May was giving at the start of this year on mental health. She is very keen to point out that she spoke about these burning injustices as soon as she became Prime Minister, and that society needs to change so that people with mental illnesses/ who live in social housing (delete as appropriate) are accepted.
What is missing from speeches on either topic is the sort of government action that might match up to a ‘personal mission’. Housing associations have welcomed the certainty that the £2bn building fund announced today gives them: from 2022, they will be able to bid for funding stretching to 2028/29. But the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter, pointed out that ‘homes for affordable and social rent are desperately needed across the country now, not in 2022, and the measures announced today fail to provide the funding certainty councils also need to play a leading role in solving our housing crisis’. Porter also complained that ‘the Prime Minister is wrong to suggest that councils are not capable of building the new homes at scale without recognising they are being hamstrung by Treasury restrictions which prevent them from borrowing against their existing housing stock’.
This is the nub of the problem: there isn’t enough money coming forward to solve these ‘burning injustices’, nor enough room for those who want to think radically about housing policy or indeed the provision of mental health care to do so. If the Prime Minister’s speech today makes little impact, this will be blamed on the overwhelming nature of Brexit. But Brexit is in fact just a useful excuse.