There is much to enjoy in this little story about budgets for council housing. For while all bien pensant non-thinkers are loudly screaming that very much more of your and my tax money must be spent upon housing for their political constituency the actual mechanism they wish to use, local councils, is returning council housing money to the Treasury. Because they cannot spend what they’ve already got.
Yes, that’s right, council housing budgets are currently too large. Which is something that we should not be allowed to ponder, obviously:
MPs are demanding an urgent explanation from ministers after being told that £817m allocated for desperately needed affordable housing and other projects in cash-strapped local authorities has been returned to the Treasury unspent.
The surrender of the unused cash has astonished members of the cross-party housing, communities and local government select committee at a time when Theresa May has insisted housebuilding is a top priority and when many local authorities are becoming mired in ever deeper financial crises.
On Monday the committee, which discovered the underspend for 2017-18, will interrogate housing minister Dominic Raab and homelessness minister Heather Wheeler on the issue, before Tuesday’s spring statement by the chancellor, Philip Hammond. He is under heavy pressure from MPs, and the Tory-controlled Local Government Association, to signal extra help for the local authority sector, which has seen budget cuts of around 50% since 2010.
From which pondering we can gain several things. The first and most obvious being that there’s no quick solution to whatever you might wish to define as Britain’s housing problem. If even those in receipt of free money, local councils getting central funds, cannot spend the cash in a budgetary year then clearly we’ve weighed down the sector with far too much bureaucracy and red tape. It’s not actually difficult to buy some land and knock up a few hovels. Gaining the paperwork, even if you’re the council issuing the paperwork, does seem to be problematic in any thing less than geological time. Which gives us one answer to Britain’s housing problems, free up the permission process by blowing up the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 and successors.
The second is that much more general point, government’s just not very good at spending money. Therefore less of national life should have the money channelled through government. Minarchism rules that is.
The third is that the corollary explains more normal budgetary processes. As we near the end of any budget year funds unspent get thrown out at any plan with a pulse. Exactly to avoid this possibility, that monies will be returned to the Treasury and next year’s budget increase will therefore be difficult to argue for. And what is any bureaucracy without an increasing budget to show its increasing importance?
But to the grand lesson. Government’s not very good at doing things therefore we should only use government to do those things which both must be done and which can only be done by government. Seeing as there are plenty of people who can build houses government shouldn’t be doing that. QED.