It’s rare nowadays to read the news and feel anything other than abject horror. But occasionally something good appears, even in housing.
This week, Sovereign housing association announced it has secured £150m from the European Investment Bank (EIB) to build 4,500 homes. Which is good: we need new homes, and the EIB is able to offer low-cost loans to fund infrastructure projects because borrowing is underpinned by the 28 EU member states.
However, hold the celebration. Because at this point, like a hangover, something may be niggling at the corner of your mind. Words like “EU” and “member states” may ring alarm bells, because very soon we won’t be part of the European project. With the advent of Brexit, we may well see much less funding for infrastructure in the UK: Werner Hoyer, the president of the EIB, told the Financial Times [£] recently that levels of lending to the UK “cannot be maintained”.
The EIB offers a genuinely good deal for housing associations, and for companies building roads, installing smart meters and many other projects across the country. To continue funding infrastructure once we’ve left the EU, housing associations and companies are likely to face much less favourable rates from other lenders.
At the same time, the housing minister Gavin Barwell has explicitly ruled out raising the housing revenue account, which enables councils to borrow to build. Currently, the government can borrow very cheaply. Using that money, councils could build properties that meet local needs, while private companies could continue to focus on what they believe the market wants. But the ideological shift of the government against social housing means councils are stopped from doing so, and with much less access to the EIB for building projects, housing associations will struggle to find preferable rates for development too.
But lending isn’t the only problem when it comes to Brexit and housing. A hugely hostile atmosphere has developed following the results of the referendum. Many Europeans don’t feel wanted in the UK, and many have been physically and verbally attacked simply due to their nationality. Far fewer Europeans and foreign nationals see the UK as a welcoming state and plan on staying. This won’t end well, because in spite of the tone of debate on migration, we desperately need migrants.
In building, we still suffer a skills shortage: not enough UK citizens have bricklaying, plumbing, and roofing skills to build anywhere near as many houses as we need. The casual racist might continue to push the evidence-free argument that the housing crisis is caused by an increase in migration putting pressure on housing even though this has been debunked time and again, but if migrants leave it will become even more difficult to staff building sites and complete houses, and house prices will rise yet again.
Lord Stunell, who is conducting a review into the impact of leaving the EU upon construction, says the industry needs to increase its capacity by 35% to meet infrastructure and housebuilding needs, but is instead likely to shrink by 9%thanks to the end of free movement and loss of access to the single market. The UK is facing a housing shortage in many parts of the country at the same time as a number of large-scale energy and transport construction projects: rarely have so many construction workers been needed. And yet many feel pushed out, or used as a political football.
For now, as with everything Brexit-related, the future of EIB loans and construction capabilities are shrouded in uncertainty. The Treasury may be able to issue infrastructure-bonds that could be competitive, or the EIB may continue to lend albeit with the requirement that the unanimous approval of the board of governors will be needed.
But if the government continues to grandstand and push for a hard Brexit, or whichever meaningless term is de rigeur when negotiations begin, the prime minister may be made an example of – leaving Britain poorer, and the housing crisis hardened.