Politics – a catalyst for positive change?

The finish line is nearly in sight and the country is definitely election weary. Too many soundbites and statistics and too much finger pointing has become tiresome.

Yet fundamental decisions for the future of the UK property industry will need to be made by the next administration – howsoever it is constituted.

First, it’s worth taking a moment to consider where we have come from in the last 5 years.  We have been through the longest and deepest recession in living memory – possibly ever recorded, and we are all starting to feel a little better about life within the bubble of the property industry.

For me, the coalition at least gave us a degree of consistency and this steady state, when combined with the improving global economic picture, has meant that growth and optimism has returned to our industry.  Whether this administration was the catalyst or it just happened to be governing during a time of general economic improvement remains to be seen, but the new administration has to tackle the two big issues facing our nation going forward.

Infrastructure and housing

The Institution of Civil Engineers’ election manifesto published in February of this year (link here) has many interesting and worthwhile points to raise with our prospective future administration, many of which are mirrored by the Building Magazine Agenda 15 campaign manifesto.  The most critical, in my opinion, is the need for truly independent infrastructure body with the ability to shape and form the future infrastructure priorities, not just for the next 5 years but for the next 20 years and beyond.

The ability of local MPs to raise issues and concerns of their local constituents on large infrastructure projects that fundamentally affect local environments and economies is a good thing – for these same MPs to be able to vote and sway the big decisions that affect us as a nation, however, is wrong.

The need for major upgrades to our rail infrastructure, the implementation of HS2 and HS3 and the third runway for Heathrow should all be dictated by the needs of the whole of the UK for the foreseeable future, not by MPs who are looking for their next successful reappointment to Westminster.

An independent regulatory body with representatives and specialists with a working knowledge of building and investing in infrastructure with real powers to recommend and enact real strategic change would be a huge step forward.

This brings me on to my second point, our housing need.  As an engineer I am continually being set problems that need specific answers.  I therefore get frustrated by the lack of detail from all the political parties when they get asked about housing quotas for the next 5 years.

It is without doubt that we need more houses in the UK, but whether its 200,000 or 300,000 per year for the next 5 years is really not important when how and where we are going to build these houses is the critical issue.

You don’t have to go far from any city centre to find large, derelict sites from our industrial past that with a little thought and care could be used for social housing or starter homes.  Sure, some sites are unsuitable due to location or planning restrictions, yet many remain empty – particularly in Leeds where I work – that are perfect.

Why are they not being built upon?  It isn’t, as some parts of the media would portray, because of greedy land grabbing developers hording sites – I don’t know of a single commercial organisation that thinks having empty buildings or land is a good wealth generator.  It is because they are too difficult, which means they are too expensive to either clean up or service with the necessary infrastructure.  This large investment requirement means that these sites are just not viable to develop so they sit as eyesores, adding nothing to the local neighbourhood.

To this end, we need a large fund available to developers, local authorities or investors that can be used to bridge the gap from unviable to viable, and release these sites for development.

Having money set aside to fund the clean-up and access of these sites on an application by application basis would be a large step forward to unlocking the land needed for our housing shortage.  It would also have the happy side effect of cleaning up the environment, breathing new life into ailing and often deprived neighbourhoods, and restrict the impact on our greenbelts, all of which are very welcome.

So, whoever ends up in Number 10 on the 8th of May (or possibly months afterwards if the negotiations take a long time), please do these two things.  Stop using infrastructure projects as a political football, and invest in our brownfield sites.

Thank you.