England & Wales Housing and planning

C’llr Magazine – Interview with Housing Minister Mark Prisk

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The December edition of c’llr magazine is now available. Housing is our theme for this month and to kick off the feature Mark D’Arcy spoke to Housing Minister Mark Prisk about the government’s plans. 

The policy is mostly set; the approach is not going to change. Reviving the housing market is a major priority for the government, for all kinds of social, economic and electoral reasons, and the new Housing Minister, Mark Prisk sees his role as a trouble-shooter making sure that revival is delivered.

He says the first phase of the job has been policy development, but success will not be measured by paper pushed through Parliament – he will be judged by real results; the number of new homes built. That means finding ways to direct new investment into housing, ensuring the government’s right to buy policies are implemented and freeing up land for housing development.

As Construction Minister in his previous department, BIS, Prisk worked to simplify regulations and boost activity, but he doesn’t come to his new role with the idea that his experience means he is already a housing expert. Quite the reverse; “it’s dangerous territory when you think you have more knowledge than you actually do, both as a surveyor and as a construction minister,” he says. “I have to stop myself from being too eager. I don’t pretend to have all the knowledge I need.”

In a recent select committee appearance, he repeatedly described the housing market as dysfunctional – so does he see it as an ER patient, at the centre of an operating theatre, surrounded by doctors with syringes and electric shock paddles, desperately trying to bring it back to life? “I think the illness is chronic, rather than acute,” he says. “The housing markets (and he emphasises the plural) have been dysfunctional for at least 12 or 13 years.”

His approach is that social housing, the private rented sector and the owner-occupied sector have to be approached in a joined up way, because what happens in one sector reverberates across the others – the present difficulty of buying, for example, is driving a rise in private rentals, and a renewed interest in investing in the sector.

C'llr Magazine - Interview with Housing Minister Mark Prisk

But while there are undoubtedly difficulties on the demand side, because of the state of the economy and fragile consumer confidence, the supply side of the equation is problematic, too. One of his objectives is to bolster the private rental sector by encouraging in new players – this includes allowing housing associations to invest there, as well as in the social housing sector, and to encourage big foreign housing providers to expand into Britain. He says American, Swedish and German companies are considering a move into the UK market, and they would offer “a ton of expertise on how to bring in substantial new services and much greater choice and quality.” He is a little cagey about the extent of this interest, and the take-up of the £10 billion of loan guarantees the government has offered to encourage new investors, but adds: “we’re ahead of where we thought we would be.”

How about the rumours that the government is contemplating introducing some kind of Housing Enterprise Zones? Prisk says he was involved in the heyday of Heseltinian urban regeneration, and saw the merits of the less prescriptive planning system which operated in the Enterprise Zones introduced then. But the policy package also included tax breaks on the profits of businesses that moved into the zones, and he’s not quite sure how that would apply to housing….there might be some kind of incentives offered, but he was far from certain how they would operate – it hardly sounds like a fully-fledged policy is about to emerge.

On the other hand, Prisk’s very clear that he wants to push another revived ‘80s policy very hard; the Thatcher-era Right to Buy initiative. Under New Labour, he says, the policy was “quietly strangled”. He is now trying to reverse the steady wind-down of the last decade by offering tenants a bigger – quadrupled – discount and offering local authorities an “over-all like-for-like” reinvestment of the money received into housing, in the form of new homes with affordable rents. He accepts there was no incentive for them to encourage take-up of the right to buy, when, essentially, the money went out of housing when a tenant bought their home. The government has tried to address that.

“I can understand councils not pushing the right to buy when the national environment was negative, but I want them to take another look now – some may be ideologically opposed, but others can now see the advantages.” he says. He will be on the road publicising the opportunity now being offered to tenants – and the financial attractions for local authorities. And he rejects the idea that all that’s left after the first era of right to buy sales is the dregs of the council housing stock, which potential buyers won’t fancy and mortgage lenders won’t wish to lend on.

I suggest to him that, in some ways, his role seems more like that of a treasury minister, less about bricks and mortar and more about devising financial instruments and attractive investment packages. Prisk retorts that for most people a decision on housing is a mix of the same issues – on the one hand the emotive idea of making a home, on the other the hard financial realities involved. But finding smart ways to leverage greater investment in housing is essential.

He thinks a big part of his role will be trouble-shooting to unlock sites that should be available for development – lack of land is clearly one of the biggest problems.

While he is cautious about intruding too far onto the planning brief of his colleague, Nick Boles, he is convinced that perceived obstacles around the planning system and building consents are a significant deterrent to new building – an extra hurdle at which many would-be developers fall. The government wants to change that perception and hopes that its New Homes Bonus – allowing local authorities to keep the extra council tax revenue from new developments – will encourage a more positive attitude in town halls. This year, he says, the government has rewarded councils through the NHB for increasing their housing stock by the equivalent of 159,000 homes (a figure which includes new build and bringing empty properties back into use). He hopes that the result of the government’s efforts will be that developers find the system simpler and more user-friendly, and the welcome from town hall planners and local political leaders rather warmer.

But that is not the only blockage. Many tracts of land which are perfectly viable and environmentally sustainable are somehow unavailable for development, he says. “We have some sites that get stuck for bureaucratic reasons – sometimes agencies are over- zealous in protecting the greater crested newt, which sometimes seems surprisingly omnipresent for an endangered species. My job is a combination of pollinating and cattle prodding the various agencies into action, whether it’s statutory consultees like Natural England or particular local authorities. Often the problem turns out to be a breakdown in communications where X wants Y to do Z, but K hadn’t communicated with L and everyone is waiting on everyone else, and then intervention by the minister can get things moving. But there is also a lack of drive sometimes. When the Prime Minister asked me to do this job he said he wanted me to ensure there was real drive and push to get more development.”

Prisk’s advice to local authorities is that he is a member of a localist government which wants to work with them to see how the new homes families in this country need can best be delivered. And the working together he envisages may be on a more nuts and bolts level than they’re used to.

This article first appeared in c’llr magazine December 2012. Mark D’Arcy is Parliamentary Correspondent for BBC News.