The Conservatives are running an unadventurous campaign aimed at older voters. So the legend goes, and it’s absolutely right. Not that a dull campaign is necessarily the wrong campaign: the Cameron/Osborne/Crosby endeavour is the Party’s best chance to get north of the 35 per cent it needs to win, or at least come close to making it over the finishing line and thus forming a minority government.
However, it needs the support of younger voters, too, if it is to return David Cameron to Downing Street – not to mention building ambitions for the longer-term that are less timid than pitching to about a third of the electorate. This is where housing comes in. Its presence in Cameron’s six election priorities is a sign of looking to the future.
The problems are well-rehearsed: too few houses built, young people priced out of the housing market, falling home ownership, smaller homes. And some of the proffered answers are wrong: stopping all immigration tomorrow would not halt the demand for new housing; and simply building more houses wouldn’t help younger people or boost home ownership. The main gainer would be buy-to-let.
This is why the ConservativeHome Manifesto supports a Home Ownership First housing policy based on a community planning system, giving planning authorities the power to restrict the sale of new homes to people intending to live in them, taxing land banking by developers, and switching mortgage subsidies to enable councils, housing associations and other registered social landlords to build new homes.
Some of this fits neatly alongside what the Government is already delivering and Cameron is now pledging – such as building 200,000 starter homes for young people. So would a commitment to Right to Buy 2: that’s to say, broadening the Right to Buy to housing association tenants, as championed on this site by David Davis. A reformed planning system would also allow for better housing design.
Other bits of Government policy are incompatible with it. We don’t believe that Help to Buy is the work of the devil – and nor has it delivered the unsustainable boom in house prices of which some warned – but one must make a judgement about whether or not the state should be subsidising people to buy private houses, and ours is that it shouldn’t.
However, we are where we are, and George Osborne is scarcely going to tear up Help to Buy in the middle of an election campaign. Nor is the Government going to pledge another big revision to the planning system – especially since the effects of the Greg Clark-approved, Nick Boles-championed reforms are now at work, with housebuilding figures moving in the right direction.
What would make that growth sustainable? Some say that there are already enough planning permissions in the system to meet the demand for new housing. But turning permissions into houses is notoriously tricky. It is also questionable politics to try to build lots of homes in many places rather than fewer ones, since voter pain is thus spread out rather than concentrated.
The alternative is to commit to new Garden Cities – on the condition that, unlike Labour’s proposed eco-towns, these are founded on local referendum-approved consent. Admittedly, the politics is difficult – but there is no easy politics in housing supply. A manifesto commitment to these might frighten too many horses in places that have been named as potential sites.
Alternatively, it might ease some elsewhere. Voters in places that are clearly not potential sites for large-scale development might welcome respite from more houses, as they see it, being crammed into their local areas. At the very least, next week’s manifesto should not close the door. Longer-term reform of the system will have to wait for another day.