PM's 'Build, Build, Build' Pledge Under Fire As £12bn Becomes £9.5bn

Paul Waugh

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Boris Johnson’s claim to “build, build, build” his way out of the coronavirus pandemic was thrown into confusion amid claims that he appeared to have cut funding for affordable housing.

As he delivered a speech in Dudley, No.10’s website suggested that £12bn would be spent on housing over the next eight years – even though the Ministry of Housing said after the Budget in March that the same amount would be spent over five years.

Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband and housing charity Shelter were swift to pounce on the apparent discrepancy.

Shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire told HuffPost UK: “A real terms cut in funding for affordable housing shows where the Tories’ priorities really lie: slashing planning regulations for their wealthy developer backers, not building good quality, environmentally sustainable, truly affordable housing for workers.”

The criticism came as the PM faced fresh claims that the Tory party was doing favours for its “housing developer mates” after he unveiled sweeping planning reforms to allow high street shops to be turned into housing.

No.10’s own website sparked the row when it stated Johnson’s reforms would include: “A £12bn affordable homes programme that will support up to 180,000 new affordable homes for ownership and rent over the next eight years, confirmed today.”

But a government spokesperson insisted there had been no cut to funding and said the eight-year timeframe was a reference to the delivery of the new homes, rather than the five-year allocation of cash for them.

“The £12bn will be spent over the next five years and this will deliver up to 180,000 new affordable homes. The majority of homes will be built within the first five years and the rest by 2028/29,” the spokesman said.

“This is in line with what was announced at Budget – there has been no cut in funding or delay in delivery.”

The confusion also appeared to stem from the fact the £12bn figure includes just over £2bn already announced by Theresa May in 2018 for delivery of new homes by 2028/29. The new commitment in March was in reality closer to £9.5bn for use up to 2025/26, government sources now concede.

Some confusion remains around the fact that even May’s original pledge in 2018 of £2bn in cash appeared to cover a 10-year period. “Under the scheme, associations will be able to apply for funding stretching as far ahead as 2028/29,” she said.

The government now says that was because housing associations requested the flexibility to build for up to three years after the funding had been handed over.

Earlier, Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “Despite all the bluster about building new homes, the prime minister has today cut his government’s housebuilding budget by a third each year. It’s quite incredible that the he thinks he can build more homes with less money.”

Johnson also came under fire for failing to come up with any new money as it emerged that the £5bn in schemes announced for school, hospital and roadbuilding were all just being brought forward from plans previously announced.

The PM’s spokesperson said the spring Budget had set out that the public sector would invest £640bn over five years.

Today’s accelerated spending would include £1.5bn this year for hospital maintenance, £1bn for schools repairs, £142m for digital upgrades and maintenance to around 100 courts this year, £100m for roads and £96m for high streets.

Jude Brimble, GMB national secretary, said: “£5bn sounds like a lot – but in infrastructure terms it’s just a drop in the ocean.

“It wouldn’t even meet half the cost of filling in the potholes in England and Wales.”

Labour had already criticised the wider plans to change planning rules to allow more shops to be changed into residential properties without any need for permission from local councils.

Debbonaire said the “land grab” away from councils and affordable homes towards developers could harm rather than help the struggling high street.

Affordable homes are typically added to developments so they comply with local planning regulations, but where councils no longer have a say over whether developments go ahead there is little incentive for this to continue.

A joint report by charity Shelter and estate agent Savills today warned that just 4,300 social homes were set to be built annually as the country recovered from coronavirus – not even enough to clear the waiting list in Wakefield, never mind nationwide.

And the reforms were all the more stark in the light of the Westferry “cash for favours” planning scandal involving housing secretary Robert Jenrick and tycoon Richard Desmond.

“The arrogance of Robert ‘three-homes’ Jenrick proposing a roll-out of ill-adapted rabbit hutches is staggering – permitted development has been shown to be a failure and this is just another example of the Tories doing favours for their property developer mates,” said Debbonaire.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.