Opinion: Brexit? The Tories greatest threat is the end of homeownership

By Alistair McIntosh, CEO HQN

Do you think Brexit is the biggest risk to the Tories? I don’t. For me it’s the end of homeownership that’ll do for them.

The new housing secretary is clear as a bell. Robert Jenrick says that since the 1920s boosting homeownership has hiked up the Tory vote. We all know that the right to buy put them out of sight for years. But sales are coming to a juddering halt. Why is that?

If you want to build homes in popular areas, there’s only one thing to do: you’ve got to build flats. And if you want to make these homes affordable you’ve got to go as high as you can. What’s the problem? No one can tell you if high rise homes are safe or not. So, people aren’t buying them. And you’ve got to feel for the tenants and owners who are in blocks already. It’s unsettling and you can’t move away easily.

Who can buy these high flats, then? It needs to be firms with deep pockets. Step forward bargain hunting landlords who can take full advantage of the cheap pound. That won’t make Robert Jenrick very happy. His grandfather bought a home precisely to avoid the knock on the door from the rent collector, and that’s what he wants more of us to be able to do. But it’s getting harder for individuals to put a foot on the ladder.

Of course, you’ve got to make blocks safe after Grenfell. It’s the right thing to do. The official advice is, on the face of it, straightforward. It says that “the clearest way to ensure safety is to remove unsafe materials”. And of course you must. So, what’s the problem?

The experts that are there to help are very cautious. No one will forgive them if they make a mistake. That means they are painstaking in their work. And the job isn’t easy. The builders who put up the blocks didn’t always follow the specifications. So, it can be tough to get to the bottom of what’s in there and whether it’s safe.

The surveyors will want to get insurance to cover them if the worst happens. That can be tricky to get hold of and expensive to boot. All of this means that it is very hard to get a surveyor to give a greenlight to a building. When you look at it there isn’t much of an incentive to pass a building, is there? If anything at all goes wrong, you’ll never work again. We wind up with a situation where residents want clear advice - and no one can give them it! How do we get out of this?

Well, first, the government has got to wake up. Their Help to Buy and shared ownership plans will be in tatters if they don’t. And if anyone has a flat that is worthless, they will not be at all happy. So, this could cost votes.

What will this do to RPs?  They won’t be able to sell flats in blocks. And they won’t be able to use blocks as security for loans. That’ll starve them of cash. This is before you even look at how much it’ll cost to fix blocks. All of this will slash the number of homes they can build.

It’s time to act. I like everything in the Hackitt report, but I would add two things. We need a lot more properly qualified fire risk assessors. Let’s have a national push to train them up. When you meet a real expert, you can tell the difference. These people actually make decisions. They know what they’re doing. So, that’s the number one point. Get the right sort of experts in to prevent fires.

But we’ll always need insurance. You might be an advanced driver, but you will still take out cover. So, how do we make sure there is a line of insurance for tenants, owners, landlords and surveyors? We could look at the scheme that works in areas that are prone to flooding. All of the insurers pay a levy into the Flood Re pool that helps to bring down the bills for policy holders. Why don’t we try and negotiate something like this?

We can’t go on with a situation where surveyors are too scared to give an opinion and residents are frightened at night. If we do, it will, correctly, change the political landscape. Can we please put Brexit behind us one way or another and get on with this?