Gagan Mohindra is member of parliament for South West Hertfordshire
Over the last 20 years the economics and politics of the housing market has been transformed. Housing used to be a battleground between different ideologies.
The Labour party thought that it owned council houses and their tenants, and their answer to every problem was greater public sector ownership, with the state as builder and landlord. Conservatives thought that the market could solve every problem because houses were assumed to be like every other product. They were both wrong.
Since those times, the political landscape has changed hugely for the better. There are very few Conservatives now who think that “the market” on its own can provide the housing that the country needs.
There is widescale recognition that government, local and national, plays several key roles in a successful housing market: setting targets, monitoring progress, reforming planning, releasing land, ensuring that the market is fluid, and even underwriting the risk of house construction and house purchase.
But whilst housing has risen up the political agenda, and attracted considerable financial support in the process, the rest of the property sector is struggling. I want to help transform the prospects of the commercial property sector in the same way that the housing market has been transformed.
To kick this off, next month I will be launching a major new property campaign group, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Regeneration & Development. Residential property has led the way in generating ideas and overcoming obstacles, and now the rest of the property market needs to follow.
Commercial property is changing and the national lockdown is accelerating the rate of change. All sectors of the UK’s property market are under pressure. And yet the one thing that doesn’t change is the importance of the sector.
Property is an important sector in its own right, employing tens of thousands of people and paying substantial taxes, but even more significant than this, property provides the infrastructure for the entire economy.
All sectors rely on the work of the commercial property sector, which plans, designs, builds, manages and maintains the workplaces, shopping centres, hotels, warehouses, houses, gyms, train stations and factories that the entire population uses.
What do we need to do?
- We need more ambitious developments which blend housing, office space, retail and leisure.
- We need to create more flexible office spaces and we need to encourage more people back into our town centres, to live, work and play.
- We need to level the playing field for our high-street retailers so that they can compete fairly with online retail.
- We need to convert excess retail into residential or “last mile” warehousing, but maintain high standards for these conversions so that they are welcomed by local communities rather than resisted.
- We need to blend pedestrian areas with transport in a way that facilitates easy access, road safety and low pollution.
- We need broader thinking and longer term planning, which cuts across the public-private divide and which envisages vibrant spaces designed for people.
- And finally, we need to be ready for complexity, because many of the developments we need most are sophisticated mixed-use developments involving many interlocking partners sharing spaces.
The high street might be our most pressing property challenge. Many of our high streets are degrading and risk creating a vicious cycle of urban decline. They have become places of convenience rather than places of aspiration.
But although the high street is the most visible challenge, there are plenty of other issues, including challenges relating to warehousing, office space, leisure facilities, student accommodation, transport connections, medical facilities, schools and manufacturing plant.
The UK has a remarkable history of solving problems and we can solve the problem of property; but only if we get our best minds together. But we need leaders of the UK property industry to step up and get involved in solving our current challenges.
Many of Britain’s most persistent problems relate to property. What is the future of the high street? How can we cut carbon emissions? How can we reduce our dependence on the car and enable people to use more active modes of transport? How can we create more high paying jobs? What housing options are right for the growing proportion of elderly people? How can we reduce the number of people suffering from mental health issues? How can we make our buildings safer? How can we improve our town centres so that they are more welcoming? How can British supply chains be made more resilient?
Each of these challenges involves property. We need new thinking by both business and government to solve these longstanding challenges.
These are exactly the challenges that our APPG will tackle.
When we launch next month, we will bring together a new group of parliamentarians who are pro-business and passionate about regeneration. We will connect these parliamentarians with a group of property industry leaders who are willing to think creatively about how we can solve the challenges of our towns.
Add into this mix, regular meetings with government ministers and advisors and you have a recipe for a group that will do fresh thinking and will come up with original proposals to make our towns and cities into the vibrant communities that we deserve.
The 11 months of “social-distancing” that we have endured during lockdown should make us all the more determined to embrace the full potential of our human need for community, once this time of difficulty is finally behind us, and the buildings that we construct and the social spaces that we create have a big part to play in this.
If you are involved in the property industry, whether you are passionate about offices, retail, warehousing, leisure, housing, hotels or transport, we hope you will join us and get involved with solving the UK’s great property challenges.