Bricks and mortar or just a House of Cards?

What challenges lie ahead for the new Housing and Planning Minister, and can he build momentum ahead of the General Election?

The dust is only just settling on the Prime Minister’s Cabinet reshuffle, a restructuring which has been dominated by the resignation of William Hague, the ‘re-positioning’ Michael Gove, and the ascension of a number of Tory women into the Cabinet.

But for the property and construction industry – and anyone else looking to build over the next 12 months – of key significance is Brandon Lewis’s promotion to Minister of State for Housing and Planning, with Nick Boles moved to BIS as Skills and Enterprise Minister.

Many have painted this major reshuffle as a cynical PR move, yet there are real and meaningful changes for the role of Housing and Planning Minister.  Whilst Kris Hopkins formerly held responsibility for housing as Under-Secretary of State at the DCLG – Lewis’s appointment sees the uniting of the two portfolios under one Minister for the first time within the coalition government.

Given that lengthy planning processes (amongst other difficulties) are often blamed for low house building rates, it will be hoped that bringing together these two portfolios will help make it easier to align policy to stimulate development levels necessary to meet demand.  This, combined with the restoration of the housing and planning briefs to full minister of state level also suggest that the government is finally taking the issues around planning and housing seriously.

So, as the fourth housing minister in under three years, what are the major challenges which Lewis can expect to face in his new role?  Undoubtedly, at the top of his list will be how to address the housing shortage and deliver more new homes.  Government measures such as Help to Buy and changes to permitted development rights might have helped to stimulate the market.  But, as prices continue to rocket, there is much more still to be done, including tackling some of the barriers facing house builders in order to start addressing the huge shortfall in capacity.

Certainly, according to the latest Knight Frank House Building Report, rising construction costs are hindering delivery – with 90% of respondents stating rising costs would have an impact.  Furthermore, despite continued efforts to cut red tape and reform the planning system it remains time-consuming and burdensome, with the report highlighting that 70% of respondents reported a rise in the number of planning applications granted on appeal over the last year.  With the cost of appeals ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of pounds, this simply adds to the cost of delivery.

For developers, NIMBYism also persists as a problem, with local opposition to development seen as one of the biggest challenges to the sector for the future: 82% of respondents said that it would have a moderate or sizeable impact on the market.  Alongside this, facilitating access to public sector land and unlocking development sites including brownfield land will remain vital.

It’s easy to see the reshuffle as a cull of the ‘male, pale and stale’, a re-casting of the Cabinet as a more PR-friendly machine, tasked with the sole purpose of winning the next election for Cameron and the Conservatives. But the housing crisis remains a real issue with real problems, and with real knock-on effects for much of the UK’s population.  With housing so high on the political agenda, Lewis has an important portfolio on his plate.  His ability to manage it could be a key foundation on which the Conservatives’ election gambit is built.

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