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A cry for realism

Politicians always seek to leave us with positive images of what they are trying to do. In her Ministerial reshuffle this week Theresa May sought to project an impression that her new  team better mirrors the nation, with nine women in her cabinet and six Ministers with third world backgrounds. 

There is nothing wrong with that so long as her Government actually addresses the real needs of the nation, especially those struggling to cope with the heavy pressures on them to make ends meet.  We need Government action based on realism, not just good PR.

The Brexit negotiations are an example of this.  Mrs May is meeting top people in the UK financial sector this week to reassure them that financial services will be protected in the Brexit deal. Philip Hammond and David Davis have been in Germany this week trying to persuade Government officials and business leaders to help us obtain a post-Brexit deal that includes financial services. Nothing wrong with trying that but it ignores the realism of Michel Barnier. He has said bluntly, “financial services cannot be part of a free trade agreement as the EU cannot give up its regulatory autonomy”. Realism says that whatever trading relationship the UK has with the EU post-Brexit; it cannot be as good as what we have enjoyed as members. It is a foolish illusion to pretend otherwise.

Another example of the need for hard-headed realism concerns our domestic house building programme. We have a serious housing problem. There are 300,000 homeless people in Britain; that is one in twenty of us. It is Government policy that we need to build 300,000 new homes each year and most of them need to be at the affordable end of the market. London has a surfeit of large empty, expensive mansions and doesn’t need any more. The distressing reality is that whilst in 1967 the construction industry built 400,000 homes, today it only builds 150,000 a year and too few of them are affordable for most of us.  The industry is dominated by a small number of large companies. The small construction firms only have 12% of the market share.

Industry critics say the major builders are holding the nation to ransom. They buy sites and obtain planning permission to build and then sit on them until house prices rise. They promise to build a significant number of affordable homes but then renege on those promises. Some then sell the houses they have built on a lease-hold basis and charge exorbitant ground rents. There is nothing wrong with making a modest profit but the real needs of the nation, homeless people and those who need an affordable property, are not being met.  Mrs May has added ‘Housing’ to the title the Ministry of Communities and Local Government but nothing will change if this is mere window dressing.

Realism will mean improving the productivity of the construction industry, with increased investment in modern technology and new materials, training a new generation of construction workers and measures to encourage smaller building companies and housing associations. Reforms of the planning system to discourage any firm granted planning permission from sitting on that until prices and their profits increase.   

From a Christian perspective realism is an essential requirement if we are to be agents of change rather than conformists to the ways of our post-Christian society. We should never forget St Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:2.

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