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  • Writer's pictureAnna Clare Harper

How to change housing policy


The Return: Property & Investment Podcast Graphic

Anna chatted to Ian Fletcher, Director of Policy at the British Property Federation about how to influence housing policy.


Highlights include:

  • The latest on hot topics like Renters Reform Leasehold Reform and the up-coming election 

  • How policy-making actually works, from consultations with Civil Servants to lobbying Members of Parliament

  • What next for housing policy


Listen in here: bit.ly/returnpodcast


This transcript is AI generated. Please excuse any typos. If you’d like to see a human-edited version, please reach out to Katy@GreenResi.com


[Anna Clare Harper]

Hi, and welcome to the Return Property and Investment Podcast. I'm Anna, and I'm delighted to be joined by Ian Fletcher, who is Director of Policy at the British Property Federation. So, welcome to the podcast, Ian, and thank you so much for joining me.

 

[Ian Fletcher]

No, it's a pleasure to join you, and really looking forward to it. Thank you for the invite.

 

[Anna Clare Harper]

Of course. So, today we're going to talk about influencing housing policy, which is a real hot topic at the time we're recording, and including hot topics like the renters' reform, leasehold reform, the budget, and the upcoming election. For example, what Labour are likely to do that's different from Conservatives, if anything.

 

Let's see. Firstly, though, it can be quite difficult for outsiders to navigate the many industry organisations. So, I wondered if you could just briefly explain what the British Property Federation is and the kind of work that it does.

 

[Ian Fletcher]

Yes, certainly, Anna. We are at the Trade Association for the Property Investment Sector. That's probably sent half your listeners to sleep, and I suppose trying to illustrate what that means is that we seek to illustrate that the property industry is a force for good economically, socially, environmentally.

 

That involves a lot of advocacy on our part. So, getting out there, speaking to politicians, civil servants, other stakeholders. We have other aspects of our work.

 

We provide a forum for our members to network, share best practice. We've increasingly tried to provide that forum also for younger members of the property industry, what we call our BPF Futures. An exciting year for us because we've merged.

 

We've created one less organisation out there. We've merged with the UK PropTech Association and try to be, as the name suggests, Britain-wide. So, getting out into the regions and nations of the UK.

 

[Anna Clare Harper]

Awesome. Okay. And I wondered if you could give, this is quite a good question actually, can you give a quick summary of what is happening with renters reform and resale reform?

 

[Ian Fletcher]

Yeah. Renters reform, we met with the Minister, Jacob Young, on Wednesday. It's held up in Parliament, and that's because there's about 60 backbench Conservative MPs who don't like all aspects of the bill and are seeking to amend the bill.

 

And there's one particular amendment that is a sticking point. Yeah, we want to see the bill passed. And therefore, the meeting was very much to try and work out how we can give comfort to those 60 backbench Conservatives that, you know, this is something that they'll support.

 

Yeah, we've had particular priorities on the bill, things like court reform, licensing, a minimum 10-year length. And hopefully, we can unlock that sort of logjam and get things moving. Leasehold reform, also very busy.

 

That goes into the House of Lords next week for its second reading. Yeah, that is our more, I think, difficult issue in terms of the approach of the Secretary of State. There's a number of measures that we think are good things, will improve transparency and rectify bad behaviour in the sector.

 

Yeah, there are a number of measures, however, that impinge heavily on legitimate property rights of property owners, and we can't support. The probably most high-profile thing in the media has been a cap on ground rents. Yeah, my latest intelligence on that is that, I think, the Department for Leveling Up has made its decision on that.

 

And it's now going around the various other departments of state to see what their views are. And ultimately, it'll be number 10 Downing Street that decides what course of action the government takes on that.

 

[Anna Clare Harper]

Super interesting. And I mean, you can see why these kind of policies are contentious and difficult, because as you said, there's that trade-off between what sounds like it would be beneficial for a lot of people who are living in a property versus what the impact is on the ownership rights, and therefore, whether people actually want to own property in the country at all, which is just such a difficult trade-off. And with the recent budget and upcoming elections, housing politics are kind of at the forefront of public discourse generally.

 

So, how does the British Property Federation navigate representing the industry and those political and complicated political landscapes to ensure that the interests of stakeholders are represented?

 

[Ian Fletcher]

Who we represent, I think, has changed dramatically over the last 10 years or so. I don't think people outside the sector often see how much the property sector has changed, both in terms of who's investing and what they're investing in. So, from a housing perspective, we represent the rental living sectors, student accommodation, built-to-rent, older people's housing, co-living, etc.

 

In terms of how we engage in this heightened political time, if there's one rule we have to follow, it is that we must be apolitical. We can't show a preference for a particular political party. To do that, it means being very clear about actually what we want as a sector and presenting that to the politicians.

 

We published our main manifesto at the start of this year, and we'll be following that up over the next few months with specific manifestos on particular areas of policy, housing being one. In the last few weeks, we have obviously been, for some time now, engaging with the Labour Party. In the last few weeks, I've met Shadow Secretary of State, Angela Rayner, met with the Shadow Housing Minister, Matthew Pennycook, and with a political advisor that is advising the party on affordable housing.

 

We have a good dialogue with their planning team. We're trying our best to get out there. I've been doing that for six months, and we'll be doing that up until and beyond the general election.

 

A quick name drop. We have a very good external company that helps us on that, a company called Inhouse. We specifically made the decision that we needed a bit of extra public affairs help during this very busy political period, and they've been excellent in that regard.

 

[Anna Clare Harper]

Okay, that's interesting in itself, because I suppose one of the things I'm interested in and really wanted to cover in this episode was just how policymaking actually works. So that probably leads us nicely on to that question, which I guess is, it's kind of a long and convoluted question, but can you explain, maybe with an example, who actually does what, whether it's MPs, civil servants, lobbyists, other, like what you said, public affairs companies, any other industry stakeholders, who does what, and how does that evolve into, you know, how does that kind of factory of workers, as it were, to follow an analogy, actually end up being a policy?

 

[Ian Fletcher]

Yeah, and often it sort of starts with just a sort of small pebble in a pond in terms of issues that get taken up by government. Yeah, so there are a range of stakeholders out there that are trying to, I suppose, get government to do things. A good example, rather than an obscure one, but one that I've sort of admired over the last few years has been, it was quite a campaign to try and get the rental sectors more pet-friendly, and Battersea Dogs Home started that off.

 

You know, I've had various different organizations that have been supporting it, I've done research to illustrate the benefits of having a pet at home, and then you sort of use tools like questions in parliament just to raise awareness more generally with parliamentarians of an issue. Yeah, once you get it onto their agenda, then it becomes a lot more of a sort of formal process. So, you know, in that case, civil servants will be told by the minister to look into this issue about, you know, pets and rental accommodation.

 

You know, civil servants tend to be quite thorough. You know, they will go out, reach out to stakeholders such as ourselves, take our opinions, perhaps do a consultation exercise, and then it gets sort of into, you know, if there's the opportunity, a bill like the Renters Reform Bill. And, you know, at that stage, it becomes far tougher in terms of our work.

 

You know, if you've got something into a bill, and I should hesitate to say that we support making it easier for tenants of rental properties to have pets, but, you know, on other issues, once things are into the parliamentary process, it becomes far more difficult to reverse it if you don't agree with it. And that is, I suppose, the sort of public affairs side of our work, trying to reach out to politicians, you know, meeting them at party conferences, that sort of thing. So, that's a sort of reactive issue.

 

You know, one of the huge challenges in our work is just trying to balance being reactive with proactive. And, you know, whilst we're reacting to others' campaigns, we're also trying to get government to get behind some of the things that the sector cares about. And, you know, in that regard, it's often about presenting solutions to problems, you know, trying to illustrate that housing, for example, is not just housing, but it's productivity, employs people, you know, underpins health and education.

 

And so, you're trying to present it as not necessarily, you know, going in through the front door and saying, you know, this is property investments, you know, you should be supporting this, but going in the back door and saying, you've got an economy that's underperforming, we have got an economy that needs to support people better in terms of their health and other social outcomes, and illustrating how property investment can underpin that.

 

[Anna Clare Harper]

Yeah. Oh my goodness, you've said so much in that one answer. And I completely agree.

 

I mean, for example, one of the issues I end up talking about a lot is the affordability of rental homes. And that is a business issue. It's not just a housing issue.

 

It is really, really important to every aspect of our economy, our lives, our society. It's not a housing issue. And these things are ultimately all interconnected.

 

And so, just one clarification question. So, yeah, who drafts the bills in the first place?

 

[Ian Fletcher]

Yeah, there's a sort of part of a department that is the sort of legal side of things. And so, they have sort of parliamentary draftsmen. It's a weird sort of thing to sort of shed insight on.

 

There are parts of bills that I've written as a stakeholder by tabling amendments, as it's gone through the parliamentary process. And I think from the outside world, people sort of imagine that you've sort of gone off to some clever lawyer and got them to draft an amendment for you. But often, it's not the case.

 

It's just you intuitively looking at the bill and saying, well, how can we alter the wording to do X or Y? So, yeah, just lifting the lid a little bit on that. It's not as sophisticated as perhaps people sometimes imagine.

 

[Anna Clare Harper]

Well, but there are a lot of stakeholders involved, right? And so, with the influence of a lot of them, I think things end up being quite sophisticated. And the other thing that I think is really interesting is that issue of responding versus reacting.

 

Because it seems, I mean, you mentioned that being a challenge for you, but it seems to me like that is a challenge for politicians in particular, because quite often, especially with housing, which is such a kind of emotive topic and theme for obvious reasons, the things that get announced and the press releases tend to be quite reactive, really. There's been an article about this particular issue and now we're reacting to it rather than really looking at, okay, well, here's a cost-benefit analysis. People find it very difficult, I think, to detach and be unemotional about housing.

 

[Ian Fletcher]

Yeah. And it's one of the more frustrating parts of the job, really, that there is this sort of huge government machine that tries to, I suppose, counter any sort of descent from their position with the use of the media. Yeah, sometimes I think a little bit too much in haste.

 

And clearly, we try and counter as well. It's another part of the job is trying to use the media, whether that's social or print and broadcast, to get our points across.

 

[Anna Clare Harper]

Yeah. I wondered if you could share some recent successes, perhaps in advocating around renters' reform or leasehold reform, or even the PEPs piece that you mentioned earlier, and just share what has been most effective for engaging with policymakers to drive changes.

 

[Ian Fletcher]

Yeah, on renters' reform, really a mixture of things at different stages of the political process. Yeah, it's always nice to be able to get in there. As I said before, the sort of parliamentary process has started.

 

And we've done a lot of work prior to the bill coming through to get purpose-built student accommodation exempted from the indefinite sort of tenancy provisions of the bill. So we were quite pleased the government agreed to that. And that's something we've not sort of had to battle as we've gone through the bill in Parliament.

 

Another success, I think, was around the sort of middle of last year. We were concerned that the government was just going to introduce the bill without the promises that are given on sort of improving court processes. And whilst landlords don't trot off to court at the earliest opportunity, there are instances where that is necessary.

 

And so it was good to see the Secretary of State coming out in October and saying they would not abolish Section 21 without delivering on court reform. Really important. Yeah.

 

And then the piece of work we were working hard on at the moment, and I'm hopeful on, I can't say for sure, is that the bill had removed a minimum tenure length. I'm hopeful that government will reinstate so that landlords get comfort that they will at least be able to know that a tenant will stay for six months. And that then helps in terms of financing obligations and things like that.

 

So those are, I suppose, some of the things we hope on the renters reform. And we'll continue. There are things we will continue to lobby for as the bill gets tougher.

 

You get a sort of better quality of debate in the House of Lords. So there are things we're planning to do in the House of Lords because the bill gets a bit more consideration there and there's a little bit less sort of political to and fro than it gets in the Commons.

 

[Anna Clare Harper]

Interesting. Okay. And one of the problems the UK housing market faces is just this long-term underinvestment.

 

There's a widely touted stat that is 98% of the homes that we use in five years already exist. And its ownership is really, really fragmented. It's really dispersed.

 

Meanwhile, institutions love the benefits of residential investment. They love the yield, the growth, the resilience and scale. The approach taken currently, build-to-rent and new-build single-family housing, and also, I mean, on a related point, the other areas you mentioned earlier, those segments like senior living and student to the extent that they're applicable for different sub-markets, they are all limited in their potential scale and deployment pace because of practical considerations like planning and the amount of suitable land that's available, not to mention how long it takes to actually build. Some statistics say, you know, the average build-to-rent scheme takes five years, some say seven, from we want to do this to actually being rented versus existing homes that obviously take just as long as it takes to change hands and get upgraded, right, which is a matter of months.

 

So, knowing what you know about both policy and also institutional investors, what do you think will change in the next 10 years in the UK housing market and what will be the same?

 

[Ian Fletcher]

Gosh, yeah. So, I think the biggest single change I think the members would like to see, but it's not going to be something that's turned around very quickly is, you know, we constantly hear about a lack of resource at local authority level with respect to planners and, you know, even if government were to throw money at that problem, you know, there simply aren't the planners there to bring back into making local authorities well resourced.

 

So, you know, that one is going to, I think, be something that turns around quite slowly, but at least I think we've got a political consensus now that, you know, something needs to be done to improve the supply of planners. I think something that's been pressed by us and was taken up by the Competition and Markets Authority a few weeks ago is just trying to ensure that on larger sites there is an obligation on the developer to take a multi-tenure approach, you know, so that you get that sort of acceleration of build-out that comes with rental development and that's something that had previously been looked at through the Letwin Review and I hope will be taken forward perhaps by the next government. I think local authorities could do more in terms of sort of buying land themselves and, you know, providing more of ready sort of opportunities. I think we need to resolve there's an issue that's long outstanding, which is, you know, the best way to deliver, I suppose, land value capture.

 

Is that section 106? Is it SEAL? Is it infrastructure levy?

 

You know, that really needs to be resolved to give the sector the certainty it needs and I suppose ending on a sort of optimism note, you know, one of the nice things about representing this part of the sector, I think, is that it is, you know, perhaps a bit more sort of product and sort of technology savvy than other parts of the property sector and, you know, constantly sort of wonder at the sort of innovations coming through sort of prop tech and that sort of thing and, you know, a lot of that I think ultimately making the life sort of the resident better. So, well, that's rental or buyer. So, yeah, I think increasingly obviously see that coming through.

 

[Anna Clare Harper]

Super interesting and it was interesting hearing you talking about the local authorities and the role that they play because there's much chat about, you know, how that how local authorities can actually like get things done in the housing market they need to and one of the issues is obviously funding and so to me it comes full circle and ultimately solving any like housing market problem becomes a funding problem. How do you get institutions happy to fund certain things and whether that institution is an investor like a pension fund or a pension fund investor or whether it's kind of government, ultimately everyone needs to be happy and on the same page with the fundamentals in the market which comes back down to what policies are you putting in place.

 

So, we've come full circle. So, if listeners want to find out more about you or the British Property Federation or just to get in touch, what's the best way for them to do that?

 

[Ian Fletcher]

We have a website with contact details and that's bpf.org.uk but try to be as open as possible and yeah anybody is welcome to drop me an email ifletcher@bpf.org.uk. And the other thing I would recommend is checking out some of the content that you produce because there's some really, really interesting stuff.

 

[Anna Clare Harper]

So, thank you so much for joining me Ian and thanks for listening. Bye

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