A time for ambitious thinking?

As a new joiner to Shelter’s policy team I’ve already been introduced to some interesting ideas about how we can make housing more affordable, better quality and get a better deal for the growing numbers of private tenants. The policy team is not short of solutions to the many failings of our housing market – as the many postings on this blog prove.

I’ve recently moved across from a political office, which included working on some manifesto ideas for London’s housing market. One of the frustrating things I found about politics is that ambitious ideas can sometimes be reined in by fear: fear of the media reaction, of doing something new or untested, or of taking on vested interests. It’s an age old political problem.

A glaring example of this is the lack of political ambition for getting more homes built. There are plenty of ideas to draw from.

Just in the last few weeks, a senior economist weighed into the debate with a bold suggestion, given the gloomy economy. Jonathan Portes argues that with borrowing costs at historic lows we could easily finance investment in a £30 billion house building programme. In fact, he points out that we could pay the debt interest with just the revenues from the (now defunct) ‘pasty-tax’. Just consider what £30bn housing investment would do to create jobs, boost the economy and help families stuck in unaffordable housing.

Even more creatively, the government could avoid critics from left and right who would jump on extra borrowing as a “plan B” or a risk to our credit rating by setting up a National Housing Investment Bank financed by new credit created by the Bank of England (quantitative easing for housing).

Another ambitious (if slightly wacky) idea that surfaced last week was former government advisor Graeme Bell’s plan to gradually turn Heathrow into a ‘Garden City’, creating 30,000 new homes. Whilst this will inevitably tie up with debates about new hub airports and jobs in west London, the idea manages to stimulate thinking about big new developments which are sustainable, attractive and close to employment.

Whatever your view on Portes’ or Bell’s policies, they move debate in the right direction. We need a wealth of ideas, not a poverty of proposals stuck in the same tired old thinking.

One part of Shelter’s role is to promote debate and to develop and highlight ambitious new ideas that are practical and will make a difference. I’m looking forward to taking part in that debate and hopefully providing a few ideas of my own. Watch this space…