BPF Summit: how optimistic can the sector be ahead of the election?

Ahead of the upcoming UK General Election, JLL’s Alice Elwood reflects on how the outcome of it may affect the living sectors.

Alice Elwood, Senior Surveyor at JLL | BTR News
Alice Elwood, Senior Surveyor at JLL.

This year, I was lucky enough to be invited to the British Property Federation’s (BPF) National Living Sectors Summit to hear the insight and experiences of the leaders of our living investment sector. The speakers ranged from housebuilders and investors to former politicians, all offering their perspectives on where we are and where we’re going.

By Alice Elwood, Senior Surveyor, JLL

Inevitably, the hot topic of the day, dominating every panel and every keynote speech, was the upcoming General Election on 4 July and, crucially, what an incoming (most likely, Labour) government might mean for investment and development opportunities in the living sectors.

As you would expect for a conference taking place during a General Election campaign, there was much talk about housing targets, the critical need to improve the planning system and how immigration will influence the supply/demand imbalance. There was also a fair number of topics which couldn’t be talked about at all, given the constraints of pre-election period.

The key takeaways for me, though, were not about how governments and their policies might shape us as an industry, but instead how we can strive to work collaboratively with the next government to shape and facilitate the housing policy of the future.

We heard from Luciana Berger, Senior Advisor at iNHouse Communications and former Labour MP, who made the case for housing as a crucial part of the nation’s infrastructure, while Fiona Fletcher-Smith, CEO of L&Q and Chair of the G15, gave her view that spending on housebuilding creates savings and investment elsewhere, from education to the NHS.

Both stressed the potential positive impact on social mobility, reduction in crime rates, improved public health and, by extension, lower levels of long-term public spending which come as a direct consequence of growing up in a warm, safe home. The core message was that the living sectors have a huge amount to offer; we ought to shout about it more.

Of course, no one was shying away from the fact that housebuilders and investors have a requirement to deliver profits for shareholders but, when put in these terms, it seemed to me that our industry, including the private sector represented at this conference, has more common ground, in terms of a desire for more and better housing, to explore with a potential incoming Labour Government than one might think.

One of the standout moments of the conference was when JLL’s Paul Winstanley called for a straw poll of the room: ‘do we think that the 1.5 million home target is achievable in the next parliament?’ The answer was a resounding ‘no’. However, when asked if we were generally more optimistic about housebuilding under the next government compared to the current one, the response was not so damning. I would say about half the room, perhaps a little more, were more optimistic. Similarly, when asked whether the industry can deliver on the 1.5 million homes, if there were the political will and economic backdrop to facilitate it, there was also more support from the room.

To me, there is a fascinating tension here between the emotion of being offered a reset button on the government and the practical realism which comes from the years of industry experience gathered in that conference room. My instinct, as a bit of a cynic, was to focus on the fact that the Labour pledge to build 1.5 million homes, or indeed the Conservative target of 1.6 million homes, is very unlikely to be reachable, at least in the near-term future.

On reflection, though, assuming the polling thus far is borne out on 4 July, the Labour government being offered is one of planning reform and industry partnerships. So, perhaps, the more pragmatic approach would be to disregard what the target is and, instead, embrace the optimism of the reset button and set out our stall as an industry with huge potential to create a positive impact across society.