HACT's Chief Executive Matt Leach was asked by sector magazine 24housing to produce a blog about the issues he would try to tackle should he become king for one day.
Clearly any king for the day would need to balance constitutional niceties against the desire to get things done. But on the assumption that the full range of state powers are in my hands, if only for 24 hours, I’d have a fair few things on my regal to do list. With housing one of the biggest issues facing the country, this may necessarily have some priority…
Reform housing regulation Considerable time, effort and money is put into regulating the conduct of a group of generally well performing, not-for-profit landlords who provide mostly great services to residents and contribute significantly to housing supply. Whist almost no resource is spent on regulating any aspects of private rent, despite event the latter providing – overall – markedly inferior homes in terms of security of tenure, quality of management, tenant involvement and rent levels. To a regal eye, this is patently ludicrous, and even more so now that social housing is the smallest of the three tenures and privileged access to social housing grant (such as it is) no longer really exists. My first action will be to ask the Royal Vizier (or Julian Ashby, whoever is closer to hand) to remedy this confused and confusing state of affairs.
Housing supply Whilst we’re looking at regulation, we might want to look at its application to one of nation’s greatest assets – its huge undeveloped stock of land. Surely at a time of housing crisis, the extent to which the largest landowners in the country use their landholdings to facilitate the delivery of housing for the benefit of its populace is something the state ought to have a view on (but has been strangely quiet on since 1911. Particularly when even now, 70% of our land is owned by just 1% of the population (a disproportionate number of them related to royalty). How we release land for development seems to this king at least a far a more important issue for state intervention than whether not-for-profit landlords are squeezing every last spare bit of capacity in their balance sheets to deliver a few more homes or weather the uncertainties of benefit reform.
And whilst we’re at it, and the land has become newly available, I’d like to take the opportunity of my day in charge to press on with a new generation of garden cities to celebrate my brief but triumphant 24 hours on the throne. They’re going to take for ever to design and build, so let’s get on with it without leaving them forever at risk of marginal constituency politics or extended NIMBY campaigns. Let’s learn from the best of our previous garden cities and put idealism above pragmatism. We shouldn’t just be building dormitories for London commuters, but ambitious and aspirational places to live, with great design, a rich population mix, the latest in technology, and prioritise social enterprise and civil society at its core. And they might even inspire those living in areas previously averse to development to want some of their own.
It may take somewhat longer than my reign, but I’d like to take my day in the palace to start to plan out how we unwind our decades long housing bubble. Borrowing ridiculous sums of money to pour into ever increasing land values seems a particularly silly way to go about managing our affairs, particularly when that money could be spent on stuff that is more useful or fun, such as souvenirs of my coronation (and forthcoming abdication). But we do need to get the price of housing in the more overheated parts of our country down to a level where it is accessible to the moderately well to do, without the need for access to family or state-sourced subsidy.
Finally, I’d like my reign to be commemorated for its abolition of the noxious and pointless argument about welfare benefits. Setting sections of the population at one another over perceived cheats and scroungers may be of value to politicians approaching elections, but is of no interest to a benevolent monarch. At a time when changes in technology threaten in the next ten years to significantly hollow out all levels of the labour market, challenging the functioning of the economy as we currently understand it, we need to think radically about how we provide for individuals and maintain demand. I’d move fast in the final hours of my reign to introduce a universal basic income, abolishing the concept of welfare fraud, removing disincentives to work, and spreading universal happiness across my kingdom, particularly in those areas currently suffering from the iniquity of the bedroom tax.
On the assumption that a the conclusion of my 24 hours in office, I’ll be turfed out of the palace without access to limousine or carriage I might also try to spend some time sorting out London’s cycling problems. But I fear that might be too much even for a king.