Opinion: Piecing together the housing policy jigsaw

The Coalition government is seemingly intent upon drowning us in a blizzard of consultation papers, green papers, white papers, and hasty legislation. No doubt there is also a bit of kite flying taking place for good measure. One problem with all this activity is keeping track of overlapping agendas. How do we sum the parts in a way that allows us to get a sense of the likely cumulative impact of change?

One area in which this is particularly acute is housing. Policy which impacts upon housing and the housing market sits with a number of government departments. Housing policy and planning policy are formally the responsibility of Communities and Local Government, while responsibility for housing benefit and the local housing allowance rests with the Department for Work and Pensions. At the same time, responsibility for aspects of housing finance that fundamentally affect access to and affordability of housing – such as mortgage market regulation – lie elsewhere. Housing also crops up in the Department of Health’s (DoH) bailiwick: it gets frequent, though vague, mention among the determinants of well-being in the recent public health white paper. Interestingly, one of the more specific housing initiatives the DoH white paper mentions approvingly is the ‘warm front’ fund, which the Department for Energy and Climate Change has just announced it is freezing (if you’ll pardon the pun).

The early Blair governments adopted a rhetoric of “joined up” policy that acknowledged – in policy discourse, if not always in practice – the need to overcome departmentalism to understand problems in the round. Problems with complex causes and wide ramifications need holistic approaches. Delivering sufficient, affordable and liveable homes is a vital issue that requires such a joined up approach.

The Coalition has not made many public attempts to piece together the policy jigsaw across departments to reveal the picture of the overall thrust of policy towards housing. Whether that is because there is no grand design or because the grand design is not one they are keen to share too publicly is uncertain.

We do, however, have several pieces we can start to put together if we are to understand how the housing market is going to evolve over the coming years under the influence of Coalition policy. We have the social housing reforms set out in the Local Decisions consultation paper, which were subsequently embodied in the Localism Bill. The Localism Bill also carries significant implications for planning policy. The reforms of the Local Housing Allowance in the private rented sector have generated considerable media attention, but arguably much of the debate about maximum levels of support has been a distraction from more serious concerns. There have also been restrictions on the assistance available to distressed owner occupiers, which is causing concern for industry bodies such as the Council of Mortgage Lenders, and significant threats to Supporting People budgets which assist independent living.

Each of these developments raises important questions in its own right. But what happens if we explore more fully the way in which they interconnect with, complement or contradict each other?

We all know that the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution starts by stating that the party seeks “to balance the fundamental values of freedom, equality and community”. This is at the heart of what the party stands for. The challenges in reconciling the tensions inherent in this triad can be formidable. It is fundamentally about the individual and the collective. Housing policy – or, perhaps more accurately, policy that impacts upon housing and housing markets – is an area which throws these issues into sharp relief. And piecing together the jigsaw in order to reflect on the picture that emerges is valuable.

Alex Marsh is a Liberal Democrat member who blogs about housing and other social policy issues at alexsarchives.wordpress.com. This is the first of a four part series which we are running from Alex this week.

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  • Article is interesting as is Prateek’s comments.

    I think one of the problems about actually achieving joined-up thinking in Government is the fact that big issues such as Housing straddle ministerial departments and are therefore subject to the endemic infighting which takes place with The Treasury to retain departmental budgets – and thus power.

    That is the stumbling block to real progress and until a ‘solution’ is found as to how to unlock the money required to deal with a problem in a way that all Ministers can be seen in a positive light then departmental priorities will continue to rool the roost.

    It should never ever be underestimated just how fiercely Ministers fight for their turf as their future political mobility depends on how well they ‘manage’ it. A lot of MPs are happy to serve their constituents from the backbenches but those with the political drive to become Ministers invariably, in my limited experience, nearly all believe they have what it takes to be PM.

    Laughable in the majority of cases but self-delusion is a powerful driver and it infects pretty equally across party divides although perhaps ordinary LibDems are only recently having their eyes opened to just how widespread this phenomenon can be.

  • @Prateek Buch and Alex M

    I think the kind of planning and discussion mentioned routinely takes place in all administrations to a greater or lesser extent. But I think Alex M hits the nail on the head when he says that civil servants will happily work away up until the point their Minister would be displeased because his position or power would be affected.

    I am afraid I don’t totally agree on the collegiate cabinet approach for all decision-making and tend to go for the Presidential approach to deal with the large intractable problems that can’t be worked out between Ministers and their civil service teams.

    I doubt if you can ever successfully tackle more than 1 or 2 of these mega problems in a Parliament and I am very wary at what this Coalition is doing and all the half-baked legislation being rushed through with missing detail, poor scrutiny and little connectivity or concept of possible consequential effects.

    And then we have the strain of government on all Ministers who end up getting so tired mentally and bogged-down in the detail and then, for a variety of reasons, can be reshuffled to another department leaving the grand project floundering and usually sinking with little trace.

    You can actually see Ministers ‘age’ prematurely with the burdens and all the time they have colleagues snapping at their heels trying to take their jobs. So they can end up abadoning the grand plans and accepting short-term electoral fixes and I feel the longer a party is in power then the worse it gets.

    I’m not being pessimistic because sometimes great things can be achieved but I am sceptical of lots of candyfloss and windowdressing which provide good sound bites but have little substance and are often downright dishonest.

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