Building homes and building consensus

How do you make good policy? Sometimes it can seem straightforward, but what about big policy problems with no immediate, easy answers that will keep everyone happy? I’d put the British housing crisis in this bracket. As we’ve said before on this blog, piecemeal solutions just don’t cut it.

There is some consensus on an overall solution: we need to build more homes. But how we get there is riddled with difficulties, conflicting views and unresolved questions. The market is highly dysfunctional [PDF], with vested interests all over the place. No-one is quite sure whether house prices should come down or stay up, or where the funding for homes should come from.

There’s no single ‘villain’ to blame. Different government departments pull in different directions toward no overall strategy; policy and spending powers for different parts of the housing market are split between the DWP on housing benefit, CLG on housing supply and the Treasury on property taxes. It’s not a single issue that’s fully ‘owned’ by one department in the way that an issue like transport is.

Housing, like social care or pensions, is the sort of long-term, complicated issue that affects a lot of people and has a lot of knock on impacts.

Could we force a political consensus by some kind of housing review or commission? I don’t mean a review of one discrete area (say social housing or mortgages), but one that looks in depth at the whole of the housing system.

At worst, a review can be a token gesture or a cop out, allowing politicians to kick the issue into the long grass. They don’t always get listened to – lots of people are understandably disheartened by the apparent shelving of proposals Andrew Dilnot set out in his recent review of social care.

At best a review can force a diverse set of interests into a shared understanding of a problem and the stark realities of how to resolve it. The Turner Review of pensions is a fine example [PDF]. Faced with the prospect of a population living out retirement in poverty, the Government commissioned this in depth study back in 2002.

I think there are a few key elements that made it successful. It:

  • had a media savvy, smart figurehead who grasped politics as well as policy detail
  • was well resourced and used mixed methods
  • took its time to get things right
  • brought together a diverse set of interests and took a very open approach
  • was framed as a cross party issue: you either back this or you have a credible alternative or you’re not a serious politician
  • left politicians with a clear message: this is a crisis and you urgently need to bite the bullet, however unpalatable, to get out of it.

Having built the consensus on the problem, Turner set out the choices and tradeoffs that had to be made – forcing government and the industry to make decisions that they had been avoiding for years.

Done well, a similar review could be just what we need to make politicians take housing seriously and get away from short term shots in the arm and policy tweaks. Done badly, it would probably do more harm than good.

If nothing else, the example of The Turner Review should tell all political parties that they need to start thinking about housing in a much more fundamental, holistic way if they want to find workable solutions and credible messages, and listening to a wide range of experts. Soon enough the housing crisis will reach a tipping point – and the public will start to demand more than just quick wins.