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May-hem In the Housing Market.

Summary: Theresa May has given a Leader’s speech that has left her more fragile and at risk than ever. The money she promised to put into housing is far too little to make any significant difference. We need to deal with this on a much larger scale. Only by borrowing to invest in our housing stock can we start to deal effectively with the enormous backlog of nearly 2 million people on the social housing waiting register in England alone. We don’t have the manpower to do this in theory. The key is to invest in large-scale modular building factories that can produce houses with much less manpower than currently needed to build a house.

It takes a lot for me to feel sorry for Theresa May. Her Leader’s speech today at the Tory party conference was an unmitigated disaster. She came in to the whole to a seriously out of date pop song, kept talking while the letter “F” fell off the screen behind her (jokes of F-off will surely be along soon), a prankster delivered a P45 apparently signed by Boris Johnson and she began to cough almost uncontrollably.

At first sight one of the most trailed offers to the young and the poor was £2 billion for the housing market to enable more affordable houses to be built. This was in addition to the £7 billion already allocated, and a further £10 billion in loans for the Help to Buy scheme. For the first time in a generation councils will be encouraged to get back into the business of building houses, at least some of them for social rent (well below market level).

It will be easier to get planning permission yet that is not currently a problem. There is already planning permission granted for about 600,000 houses. A further 320,000 planning applications were approved last year as well. A reasonable number of these are for multiple units of accommodation. Despite the protestations of the building industry there is no shortage of approved sites for new homes.

The total available for building affordable houses of £7 billion might, with a bit of luck, pay for 35,000 homes over several years (we don’t know over how many in fact but it won’t be in one year for sure). Most agree we need to build around 250,000 new homes a year simply to keep up with demand, and more if we are to begin to catch up on the dreadful backlog that has accumulated by years of neglect from a Tory government.

In the year to June 2016 only 139,000 new homes were completed. Most of these were built by private developers and a negligible fraction were “affordable”.  In the 1970s there were years in which over 350,000 houses were completed, nearly half of them built by local councils. We must borrow much larger sums of money to have any hope of achieving such a target. We don’t need to borrow the money for all these houses because as soon as some are built they may be sold privately at market value while others are retained by local authorities to rent at affordable and social levels.

The other challenge is physically building that number of houses. You can read more about this here: Current statistics show it takes about 6.6 construction workers one year to build one house. If we rely on conventional construction methods we can simply forget building at the rates we need. We simply don’t have the people in the job market today to do it and, should Brexit substantially reduce inward migration of skilled craftsmen this will be even more acute.

What we must look at much more seriously is the use of modular homes. They will be somewhat cheaper than conventional build homes but most importantly they require much less manpower to build and install on-site. The name “prefabricated homes” tends to send a chill through many older people who remember the prefabs built to provide urgent accommodation for a nation laid low by many years of war. Modern modular homes are built to an extremely high standard, indeed much better than many homes built today in Britain.

Some of the more successful companies are Scandinavian and German where winters are colder and summers are hotter than in the UK. Their installation and standards of construction are extraordinarily high and they really do have the potential to revolutionise the British housing industry.

The UK would need to license the technology from those companies and have their help in establishing major fabrication facilities in the UK to meet demand. This would allow a major house building programme without as big an increase in the people needed to deliver for the dreams of so many of the 1.8 million people waiting today on the social housing register in England.

Mt Theresa Close to Eruption.

Summary: A dreadful eruption is close! Mt Teresa has become very unstable yet many of the inhabitants of the mountain are refusing to leave. It is thought that all may be destroyed when it goes off.

There is increasing evidence that Mt Theresa is close to experiencing a serious eruption. In Bali, worries about Mt Agung have led to the evacuation of more than 130,000 people. In Manchester, in contrast there are apparently some who still cluster around the desperately unstable mountain. The smaller creatures are unsure whether to run or stay but the bigger beasts continue to hope they might survive the eruption and take over the commanding heights of whatever remains after the eruption.

By nice coincidence it is exactly 50 years since Dan McKenzie from Cambridge published his theory of plate tectonics, now widely accepted. He showed that the movements of the surface of the earth cause dreadful damage when the plates intersect. This is what is happening now in Manchester. Groups of creatures called “Hard-Brexiteers” are battling against “Soft-Brexiteers” with occasional mutterings from the “No Ruddy Brexit at all-eers”.

It is feared that many will perish. The Labour Party, traditionally strongly against blood sports, seem remarkably sanguine having set up remote terraces from which to view the impending bloodbath. They have decided that this is the time to keep quiet and enjoy the spectacle which should be most impressive.

When the wrath of the gods threatens it is traditional for some to try appeasement, refusal to countenance that the status quo might not go on forever. Today we have James Brokenshire trying to placate a strange subset of the local population thought to have short-term magical powers. They are known as the DUP and are being threatened with having a budget set for them if they don’t sort out their problems. With a bit of luck, the DUP might go up with Mt Theresa.

One large rather fluffy animal, the Boris, tries to assert his capacity to maintain the mountain intact if he is allowed to climb to the top. Others, particularly amongst the younger creatures of the party are distrustful of his motives. They understand him to be the buffoon he proves himself whenever he goes overseas where he delights in annoying all he meets. Many say he should be thrown off the mountain to his doom. Another, less well nourished, is called Chancellor. In a delicious example of “pot calling frying pan black”, he has just accused Labour leaders of being dinosaurs. However it is believed that the extinction of dinosaurs was a consequence of not realising they were dinosaurs in the first place.

However almost all the bigger animals are finding it very hard to get any traction on the slippery slopes of the Mt Teresa. Her certainty she is in control is increasingly difficult to sustain. Labour believes most will be consumed in the flames and that the Tories will have to wait for a generation before their tribe grows and gains strength for the future.

Songs from the Viper’s Nest.

Summary: The Tory party are in total disarray about Brexit. The Cabinet will try to cobble together some kind of view of the way forward that is ambiguous and quite inadequate to allow progress with the EU negotiations. The lack of coherent government is damaging the UK. Labour will have considerable difficulty in managing the mess they leave behind. The longer this shambles goes on the worse it will be ultimately.

Boris Johnson’s description of the Cabinet as being “a nest of singing birds” is laughable until you realise the Cabinet is actually a nest of vipers. The fundamental problem with the Tories has been the same for years. A sizeable minority of Tory MPs and Tory party members are frankly xenophobic. They have never liked the EU and any of its institutions and manifestations. They have been happy to blame so many things that are wrong with the UK on EU intrusion into British matters. You don’t see signs acknowledging EU money going to infrastructure projects in the UK because our government has forbidden them. In every other European country you see these signs everywhere and people have a much clearer understanding of the importance of the EU to what goes on in the country.

On one side in the Cabinet you have the soft Brexiteers such as Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd who are open to belonging to the single market and maintaining substantially freedom of movement. On the other side we have the hard-core Brexiteers like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis and Liam Fox. They have been pursuing a concept of the UK outside Europe that is largely fantasy. Economic arguments, the views of business and unions are of little concern. The people have spoken. The “will” of the people must be respected. They know they must not permit another referendum or even a significant vote in parliament because that would almost certainly terminate the Brexit process.

Boris Johnson’s piece in the Telegraph just a few days ago shows how totally deluded he is about the most basic economics. By dredging up the widely derided claim for the money to be repatriated to the NHS he has made it clear just how much he is at variance with the Cabinet at present. Yet Theresa May dare not fire him. His capacity for casual remarks that are damaging within the UK and overseas has been demonstrated now very well indeed.

Political parties must find a way forward by managing conflicting views on policy. Broadly speaking the Tories have managed that reasonably well but when it comes to Europe they are totally unable to reach a compromise. Years ago John Major described the strong Eurosceptics in his party as “bastards”. Brexit means that division is right at the surface and Theresa May’s impotence after her disastrous election and lack of a majority in parliament has undermined her authority dreadfully.

No doubt the Cabinet will be able to pull together for a few hours around the Prime Minister when she makes the speech in Florence on Friday 22 September. Nobody thinks it will really be a game changer. The divisions at the heart of the Tory cabinet and of the Tory party will remain and as the Brexit process staggers onwards without much issue the forces simmering within the party will eventually explode. The earthquake that follows will lead to the fall of the government and on to the next election. The Tories are terrified that this might happen and that will help to restrain most but not all of them. But Labour will be delighted.

The obsession with Brexit in the Cabinet means that normal government has all but ceased. Almost nothing apart from Brexit is planned at Westminster and the Westminster hothouse continues to bubble with the foetid air surrounding Brexit. The economy appears to be doing reasonably well. However this is only because of the massive amount of personal debt being racked up. Unwinding that is going to be very difficult and indeed one of the biggest challenges a Labour government must face. Yet the Tories simply don’t even recognise there is a problem.

The conference season is upon us. Labour first and then the Tories. Aficionados of extreme blood sports are looking forward particularly to the Tory conference. It will feel like watching the London Olympics except that all the losers will be British. Traditionally this is how the Tory party undergoes a gravitational collapse. Warring factions fight one another and ignore the opposition. It’s going to be déjà vu all over again.

Boris and His Bucket Bomb.

Summary: Boris has again lumbered into view to complicate further the Tory party’s view of what might happen because of Brexit. After checking that the Parsons Green bucket bomb had not killed anyone he decided to let his long piece in the Saturday Telegraph run. Boris was once for Remain and changed to Leave because he could see his political chances were much better there. If the DUP supported a hard Brexit they would be badly damaged within Northern Ireland were a soft or non-existent border with the south is widely demanded. By playing this card again he risks bringing down the Tory government. He would not be forgiven very easily by so many of his colleagues.

When Boris Johnson dropped his bombshell on 15 September, most were surprised that he had resurrected the most derided claim of the Leave campaign, that leaving would repatriate £350 million per week which could be used for the NHS. That claim was again laughed out of court yet again although Boris, predictably, claimed he had been misrepresented. If you read that article (see here: can see wasn’t misrepresented at all.

His piece in the Telegraph argued for a much harder Brexit. Recently the Tory cabinet had been sliding towards a softer Brexit. Coming as it did, less than a week before Theresa May’s speech in Florence, Boris’s move was widely understood as an attempt to steer the Tory party to the right. That would stop Theresa May from simply making the speech she had promised, developing on the Lancaster House themes, probably moving the Brexit path further towards the centre.

Many see this as Boris on manoeuvres. The fame he had achieved during the Brexit campaign had faded. You might have thought him too busy in the Foreign Office, worrying about North Korea/Putin/Trump/Iran/Syria/Yemen. Despite his notorious laziness he still managed to find time to write 4000 words, emphasising patriotism. He had forgotten that Samuel Johnson had said “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”.

Yet this is much more than simply about Boris wanting to raise his profile and reposition himself as the leader of the right of the Tory party. With Theresa May under siege with her flaky majority things are very difficult for her. Her position is much like her being locked in the toilet on the last train home while the carriage is full of rowdy drunken hooligans (i.e. Tory MPs). Boris is shamelessly trying to exploit Theresa May’s weakness to his own advantage.

Boris’s approach to Brexit has a lot of support on the right of the Tory party. He may or may not have the support of Michael Gove (this appears to change daily). Given Michael’s enthusiasm for political long knives Boris probably can’t rely on it!

She daren’t sack Boris because that could easily lead to an outright attack on her leadership. Yet she dare not let the Tory party lurch towards hard Brexit because she would never get that through Parliament. The Tories are only in government because of the support of the DUP.

Within Northern Ireland DUP support has been declining progressively in recent years (see: A hard Brexit deal would lead to a hard border between North and South in Ireland. If this was a consequence of DUP support for that policy they would be decimated in the polls and they know it.

The DUP understand that they are not really that important at Westminster. Their power base is entirely in Northern Ireland. Their extreme right-wing views on same-sex marriage and abortion as well as other things have meant their support is slipping anyway. Amongst the young the historical tribalism of Unionism and Nationalism is much less important. Unionists increasingly see Sinn Fein as being a forward-looking party for the young.

If Theresa May in Florence goes back on her intentions to reset the Brexit negotiations presumably in a way that reflects the view of the Tory cabinet then the future of the support the DUP offers her government will become increasingly problematic. That would lead to a General Election, and very probably a Labour majority. That would be easier for Labour as their will be no time to get a new Tory leader in place, particularly as there are few senior Tories who command much support. They know they cannot let Theresa May lead the party into another election given how badly it has gone for the Tories ever since.