Sajid Javid possesses a kind of rueful good-humour: when his hopes are disappointed, he makes a joke. At the start of his Commons statement yesterday lunchtime he remarked in a wry tone:
“I had hoped, Mr Speaker, that this housing White Paper would dominate the headlines this morning, but it seems that someone else has beaten me to it.”
This was greeted with laughter, for John Bercow’s attack on Donald Trump had certainly generated a lot more excitement in the media than Javid’s extensively trailed and somewhat underwhelming White Paper did.
The Speaker retorted, rather felicitously: “Let me just gently say to the right honourable gentleman that I did make my statement to the House first.”
Because there was no obvious way of capping that remark, Javid had the good grace to reply: “Touché, Mr Speaker.”
He proceeded to outline the Housing White Paper. It was his chance – conceivably his last chance – to do something of the highest political significance. One of his colleagues had explained, not many months before, why the whole subject was of such crucial importance:
“Because unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising. Young people will find it even harder to afford their own home. The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth.”
Those words were spoken by Theresa May in the speech in Birmingham on 11 July 2016 in which she took her case for becoming Conservative leader to the party membership and the country as a whole.
Almost everyone agrees, as May said, that “we need to do far more to get more houses built”. If the Conservatives do not manage to do something about the divide between the owners of preposterously overvalued houses, and millions of workers who have no hope of ever owning property, some other party will address this unfairness.
So Javid should have been in a very strong position as he drew up plans for achieving this. Forward-looking Conservatives have believed since the 1920s in creating a “property-owning democracy”, and after 1979 they enabled millions of people who were not well-off to join that democracy.
Javid’s own background fits him to understand the aspirations of people who start with nothing and are determined by hard work to end up with something.
He was born in Rochdale in 1969 and as he grew up his hero was Margaret Thatcher. His parents were born in British India, and as Moslems had to flee while still small children to Pakistan.
In 1961 his father arrived in Britain with one pound in his pocket and got a job in a textile mill, after which he worked night and day on the buses because that was better paid. This enabled him to open a shop in Bristol.
Young Javid got to Exeter University, where he fell in with a band of determined and high-spirited Conservatives, Robert Halfon, David Burrowes and Tim Montgomerie, who admired Norman Tebbit far more than Michael Heseltine.
In 1990, Javid managed to get himself thrown out of the Conservative conference in Bournemouth for distributing leaflets opposing British membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the precursor of the Euro.
He went off to make his fortune by working for 19 years as an investment banker in London, Singapore and New York, after which he became the Conservative candidate in Bromsgrove. In 2010 he remarked in his maiden Commons speech that being an investment banker had not been much use on the doorstep, but had at least prepared him for entering another unpopular profession.
The 2010 intake was a very gifted one, but he rose to the top of it. His big break was becoming, in 2011, Parliamentary Private Secretary to George Osborne, after which he became a Treasury minister and in 2014 the first 2010 MP to enter the Cabinet, as Culture Secretary.
By now he was spoken of as a potential future leader, and after the Conservatives had won, to the great surprise of pollsters and pundits, the 2015 general election, he was promoted to the role of Business Secretary.
In 2016 came the EU referendum. Six Cabinet ministers joined the Leave campaign, but Javid was not one of them. In a much-mocked piece for the Mail on Sunday, he explained that “with a heavy heart and no enthusiasm” he would be voting to remain in the EU.
Javid said he wished we had never joined the EU in the first place, and thought there would be long-term benefits from leaving it, but was afraid the short-term difficulties of getting out would be too great.
Until this point, he had appeared to be a Brexiteer, so he was now in the inglorious position of seeming to lack the courage of his convictions. He was also on the losing side.
Javid and Stephen Crabb mounted a leadership bid (they were going to be Chancellor and Prime Minister) which soon came to grief. May won the leadership and cleared most of the Osbornites out of government. Javid she demoted from Business to Communities Secretary.
But housing is an important part of that portfolio, and one where for 30 years not nearly enough has been done, so this was also an opportunity to implement radical free-market reforms which would make houses very much cheaper.
The main reason why houses are so expensive is that land is scarce, and the main reason for that is our planning laws. Our most thriving cities, where demand for housing is greatest, are surrounded by green belts, on which it is difficult to build anything at all.
In 1947, the right to build a house was nationalised, and it has never been denationalised. There was widespread support for this measure, for as G.M.Trevelyan observed at the end of his best-selling English Social History (1942), with the advent in the first 40 years of the 20th century of the motor car,
“England bade fair to become one huge unplanned suburb. Motor traction created the urgent need for the State to control the development of the whole island, but unhappily the matter was left to chance and the building exploiter.”
The ribbon development of the 1930s meant houses with gardens were wonderfully cheap, but created feelings of alarm and despondency in many who witnessed it. Rural England seemed to be vanishing beneath an unstoppable tide of pebbledash.
That feeling lay behind the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. Yet there was also a powerful countervailing force: the demand for new houses, to meet the desperate shortages created by the destruction and neglect of the war years.
The Conservatives won the general election of 1951 by promising to build 300,000 houses a year. The story of how Harold Macmillan managed not just to fulfil but to exceed that ambitious target has already been told on this site.
Thanks in large part to his performance, the party won two more general elections, and Macmillan himself became Prime Minister. So we should perhaps not write off Javid’s chances just yet.
But Macmillan had a number of advantages. He enjoyed the united support of the Conservative Party (which with uncontrollable enthusiasm had set the target of 300,000 at the 1950 conference), and of wider public opinion.
The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, gave the project his personal backing; the Chancellor, Rab Butler, was obliged to provide the necessary funds; local councils were keen to do a lot of the building; and Macmillan removed wartime controls, assembled a team of seasoned experts and invoked the wartime spirit of urgency in order to hurry the whole process along.
David Willetts has remarked on the need at the present time for “Beaverbrookism” – the dynamic but unscrupulous mixture of public and private sector methods employed by Lord Beaverbrook to increase production of aircraft and munitions during the Second World War – to raise levels of house-building.
Is Javid in any position to provide this? He cannot be said to enjoy the united support of the Conservative Party. Three days ago, Andrew Mitchell, the MP for Sutton Coldfield, enraged by Javid’s support for the building of 6,000 homes on green belt land there, launched a ferocious assault on him in the Mail on Sunday:
“It is not only my views that have been ignored. So have the near unanimous opinions of the 100,000 people who happen to live in the only Conservative-held constituency in my part of the West Midlands. They wish to protect their farms and fields. It is hard to describe their horror at the monstrous dump of concrete now threatening them. The entire community has risen up in protest. Yet they have been high-handedly dismissed by Birmingham’s Labour-controlled council in favour of despoiling the countryside.”
A Conservative involved in local government said of the idea that Javid might relax controls on the use of green belt land: “I think it will cause an absolute conflagration in the home counties.”
Optimists claim that the Nimby mentality is less widespread than it used to be, for even Nimbys can see that their own children will need to be able to afford somewhere to live.
But not many speakers in the Commons yesterday opposed the the green belt. The balance of political opinion has not yet tipped in favour of building on some of it.
And May herself is keenly conscious, from her constituency experience in Maidenhead, of the opposition of existing owners to new housing, and has generally sided firmly with them. In her Birmingham speech, already quoted at the start of this piece, she said:
“From Robert Peel to Lady Thatcher, from Joseph Chamberlain to Winston Churchill, throughout history it has been the Conservative Party’s role to rise to the occasion and to take on the vested interests before us, to break up power when it is concentrated among the few, to lead on behalf of the people. It has been our strength as a Party that at moments of great national change, we have understood what needed to be done. And believe me, nobody should doubt that this is another of those moments of great national change.”
The analogy with Peel is in this context an apt one. For in 1846, he wrecked the Conservative Party by insisting on repealing the Corn Laws. This act was regarded as an unpardonable betrayal by the landowners who dominated the party, but Peel had become convinced that the national interest demanded free trade, and that with famine impending in Ireland, measures to maintain the price of grain at an artificially high level were intolerable.
A modern Peel might say that measures to maintain the price of building land, and therefore of houses, at an artificially high level are intolerable. The Conservative Party wishes, no doubt, to protect the interests of homeowners, but the wider national interest demands the sweeping away of the artificial restrictions which favour the propertied at the expense of those who own nothing.
May’s priority as Prime Minister is, however, to bring about Brexit. So far, she has managed to preserve a surprising degree of unity in her own ranks on this issue. It would be astonishing if she decided to foment division by adopting an unnecessarily provocative attitude on industrial or educational or housing policy.
So Number Ten is frightened of stirring up discord, and has decided, essentially, to preserve the green belt. Whether Javid’s other measures, however praiseworthy in themselves, will be sufficient to counterbalance this decision may be doubted.
We will not know for some time whether he has managed to get more houses built. But he can at least console himself that he no longer occupies the generally fatal position of brilliant young leader in waiting.