Canada’s housing taskforce is intelligent but is unlikely to deliver a win for the government | Martin Kettle

Good policy would not be harmed by a panel with a broad mandate and broad knowledge, and, indeed, it has got there under B.P. Ford. But the panel appears to have many MPs who will vote no on some housing question. It is also likely that some of the panel members will be strong advocates of plans that make the members happy.

Not that all the panelists are likely to be no. Progressive voices are welcome. Rather, those who don’t think the government is doing enough, or who think there is something the government could be doing that they don’t approve of, are welcomed. But not those who are on or around the side of those who think the government is on the right track and has to keep going down the track until the problem is finally solved.

So is this likely to be good policy?

It’s a smart, genuine, substantive line of argument, supported by an excellent, highly competent research team. The question that arises for a government is one of selecting those who are to provide competent intellectual input, then using that as a way of ensuring that various cooks don’t spoil the broth.

It’s hard to keep cats out of the oracle. But while the B.P. government does not have a policy agenda, it’s not hard to make out a direction that the panel has already been handed. Does that worry me? It’s my sense that this government will likely steer this right direction.

The members of the panel seem to have formed an intelligent line of thought.

What is the panel’s initial direction? To support a house building program that increases housebuilding by 50,000 annually. To bring forward release of this housing, which would require an up front grant to purchasers, and provide incentives to builders to increase the size of their houses. There is a broader question of the sort of support that’s required, and the range of outcomes that’s appropriate, but this has the potential for stimulating a housing market that is otherwise much more slow to move.

Note that this happens to be a very good plan that does a lot of things that are very important to the housing market and in the context of history. The details are of course things that can be debated, but this seems a sensible spot to start.

It should be noted that none of this is a new idea. Canada has long seen new house building as a principal engine of growth in this country. One of the least talked about Canadian characteristics is the fact that under past NDP governments, housebuilding grew by a quarter in the 1980s and an almost equally large amount in the early 1990s.

On top of that, there are many, many urban areas with the very real potential to grow much faster than the rest of the country. Housing will need to be in these areas if growth in the economy is to continue.

This problem has been confirmed by a recent OECD study of Australia, another country with abundant unused housing, and where housing policy is in the eye of the beholder. That being said, there are some significant differences in the approach taken in Australia and Canada. One is the debate around what is a sufficient floor under house prices, for example. But, there is a great deal in common.

Canada’s population growth has been quite strong and household formation has been relatively strong, relative to the other OECD countries. The lack of buildable land has made it quite difficult to move housing from inner-city to inner-city. This is at the heart of where the debate has unfolded, whether more in the outer areas would stimulate faster growth, or there was a different priority for development.

The Ford government has rightly recognized that we will need more affordable housing to meet these demands. It needs to realize that as a state, it has a responsibility to build and maintain public infrastructure like roads and electricity for the general population.

If the panel succeeds in getting this government to turn up the lights, so to speak, on 1.1m new housing units, these homes will be affordable. They are needed in order to have communities that people can afford. But the right kind of development in the right places also helps ensure that we have a predictable, stable, investment-friendly housing market, so that capital will be able to bring these homes online as quickly as possible.

If the Ford government does not heed the advice of its housing experts, its housing advisers might as well just go home.

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