Short-sighted politics

When talking to colleagues, fellow professionals and friends about politics, and especially political decisions there are some themes that crop up repeatedly.  Quite often it can be feelings that politicians are ‘out of touch’, that they put party politics above common sense or the greater good, that maybe they ought to get proper jobs.

A quite frequent bone of contention is that decisions are taken in London based on what is happening there, with little consideration as to how such decisions will affect the wider country.  I think part of the North/South divide is fuelled by a feeling in most of the UK that much of what happens inside the M25 is what drives political decisions that affect the whole nation.  It certainly feels that the good people in Westminster have diminishing appreciation of what happens  the further North from London they go.  There is a general feeling that politics and political decisions are very ‘London-centric’ and what is right for there is not necessarily right for the rest of us.

This lack of connectivity we have to political decisions is very frustrating, and whist there are now attempts to provide support for the regional economies with the establishment of the Midlands Engine-Room and Northern  Powerhouse  initiatives, these can seem to pay little more than lip-service to the idea of a governmental system that is truly in touch with the full effects of policy decisions.  In my opinion the fact remains that political decisions are often made based on what is happening in London by people with little or no concept of how these decisions affect the wider country.

Every city has its problems and many of them are common across the UK.  But the way in which political decisions are sometimes apparently made in a ‘one size fits all’ fashion appear ill-informed.

Let’s take a couple of examples.

At the time of writing this the Labour Party to quote a BBC Headline “pledge to end ‘slum’ office housing”.  This involves scrapping permitted development rights introduced in 2013 that allow conversion of offices into residential homes without the need for formal planning permission.

Whilst the idea behind the policy was to make it easier to achieve the governmental target of 300,000 new homes each year the rationale behind Labours policy decision to scrap it is that it has led to “slum housing and rabbit hutch flats”.  As an example the BBC article states there is a converted office block in Ilford which now provides 60 flats measuring upwards of 13 sq metres (140 sq ft) each, compared to the minimum floor area for new build flats of 37 sq metres (398 sq ft) each.  Another block in Harlow has seen a significant crime increase in the surrounding area since tenants moved in.

I agree 13 sq metres is extremely small, and it is unfortunate there has been an increase in crime levels in some circumstances, though whether the latter is down to the building or its occupants is a debatable point. But scrapping a whole planning policy on the basis of a few hand-picked examples is plainly wrong, and is clearly a politically inspired decision.  It is politically more expedient to blame developers for the problem and whip up public sentiment than to adopt a more sensible and rational response to the issue.  And it is furthermore a very good example of a decision being made which can affect the whole country based on what is happening in the London area.  I accept there is a huge pressure on housing, and that some developers and landlords may provide poor quality accommodation.  But one or two examples of bad practice and social issues in no way represent the picture across the rest of the country or merit the scrapping of a whole policy.

Many towns and cities across the country have been stuck for years with empty office units and redundant buildings.  Much of our town centre office accommodation sits above ground floor retail premises, and is redundant by modern standards.  Are we best to just leave it empty? Or allow conversion to residential? What about the direct benefits this can bring: more housing, greater employment, stimulus to the building supplies industry.  And the substantial long term indirect benefits such as bringing regenerative and economic stimulus into city centres that otherwise struggle, meaning more financial spend in both the city centre retail sector and the night time leisure economy.  It is beyond debate that the conversion of office space to housing can and does bring significant benefits in many ways.

Moreover permitted development rights apply equally to existing planning consent for offices on new build schemes, so for example the former Kennings site in Derby originally had planning for office use.  The permitted development rights allowed for construction of 300 high quality student flats instead.

My concern is that such political decisions taken using one or two headline examples simply play to the political gallery: they reinforce public perception that there is a widespread problem.  The more sensible option is to acknowledge there may be some issues, but deal with them in terms of a proportionate and rational response, rather than a knee-jerk political reaction that will have far reaching and detrimental consequences across large swathes of the UK that lie outside of the M25.

To be balanced, let’s take another example to be implemented by the current Conservative government- the scrapping of Section 21 notices under the 1988 Housing Act.  These notices allow landlords of residential dwellings to serve a 2 month notice to vacate a property on tenants whose initial 6 or 12 month Assured Shorthold Tenancy has expired.  There have been numerous quoted examples in the news media of Landlords using these notices to ‘hound out’ tenants who have had the temerity to complain about the standard of their rented accommodation.  It is clear that there are poorly maintained properties and tenants who are most likely wrongly denied their deposits being returned at the end of their tenancy, and that these issues are more likely to occur in larger cities where there is a greater pressure on housing provision, and more potential for unscrupulous landlords to profit from tenants.  To be clear the abuse of Section 21 notices is a contributing factor in making people homeless.

But yet again we have a disproportionate response, playing to the political gallery and both fuelling and feeding public opinion that the country is over-run with rogue like money-grabbing landlords.

There is as always an alternative point of view. Firstly, whilst Landlords have to give tenants two months’ notice to vacate after the initial tenancy has expired, tenants only have to give the landlord one month.  Secondly, a Landlord owns a property as an investment, so they need it to be rented out to receive an income. Why would they serve notice on a tenant, to then be stuck with a vacant property?  The reality is that a tenant is most likely to be served a S21 notice if they either haven’t been paying their rent or have damaged the property.

The government have long resisted calls to regulate the lettings industry.  The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors holds its members to very high ethical standards, but sadly most lettings agents are not Chartered Surveyors, so the industry is open to abuse.  But banning Section 21 notices and instead leaving Landlords with the only recourse being the lengthy process of going to Court to obtain vacant possession will cause more problems than it solves. Much of the 4 million private rented housing stock in the UK  is owned by landlords who may have one or two properties instead of a pension fund.  All this change will do is be a further disincentive to prospective landlords to have rented property.  There is a very real risk that landlords can be stuck with a tenant who refuses to pay rent whilst leaving the landlord to pay the mortgage and with limited recourse to get them out of the property. It is also more likely that they will be unable to recover the lost rent.  Again the policy is a political one playing to perceived popular opinion rather than dealing with the reality. The upshot of it will be even less provision of rented housing.

And going off on a slight tangent, it is interesting to look at policies that would make a real difference, but no party seems willing to address them as they are either difficult to put a positive spin on, or are not vote winners.

Much has been written about the demise of the high street, with both national and independent shops put under increasing pressure from online retailers.  Quite often these online giants trade from distribution centres away from the cities and as such pay very little rates.  Conversely, the independent traders who are particularly vulnerable to the online retailers continue to be saddled with rising rates bills that are undeniably a significant contributing factor in their decisions to shut down.  It’s something we hear on a regular basis, and despite being a factor in many of our towns and cities, it seems one that is largely ignored.

Helping small business owners by lifting the burden of rates will not play well in the news headlines as far as the general public goes.  This is because being seen to help business does not win many votes. More likely it will lose them.  It is politically more expedient for Parties to sit tight, despite the fact that implementation of a sensible rates relief policy will help sustain the independent High Street.  That is why the problem is largely ignored. So ignored that when it was last debated in the House of Commons in October 2018 only 7 MP’s bothered to turn up (5 Conservatives, 2 opposition).

The net result of these policies from across the political divide?

Even more pressure on the provision of housing stock due to far fewer homes being provided under permitted development rights.  Less investment and regeneration in cities and towns across the UK.   Fewer homes available to rent across the country.  More pressure on the high street.

But pointing that out won’t win any votes, as the saying goes.