Jon Quinn works for Shelter, and worked for the Conservative Party for 14 years.
It’s not hard to see why every party leader is suddenly falling over each other to be the party of homes.
Right across the country, many parents are anxious about their children’s future. With the economy improving, they might be a little less worried about where they are going to work – or how they’ll get those qualifications to get on. But polls show they are consistently anxious about where they are going to live; whether their kids will enjoy the same opportunities they did to afford a decent home they can call their own, and start a family in.
Overwhelmingly they think this is the issue which has got worse in recent years. It’s a feeling especially acute among those who say they aren’t yet feeling the economic recovery.
Of course, the fault does not lie with any one government. It’s over a generation that home ownership has steadily slipped further and further away from young people, and more have faced a lifetime of unstable and expensive private renting – or being stuck in their childhood bedrooms.
It’s precisely for that reason that the crisis demands a solution which matches the scale of the problem, and the scale of inaction over a generation. We not only need many more homes, we need many more of every different kind of home. We don’t only need to enable the big developers to build more, but break open the whole system so small builders are building again, local authorities are building again, even self-builders.
The Prime Minister’s emphasis on new starter homes yesterday would have been a good start but, as Isabel Hardman noted earlier this week, the problem is not only the limited scale but the way it’s funded: by cutting affordable housing and infrastructure. As a result, it risks coming at the expense of, instead of in addition to, the affordable homes we need. It risks giving with one hand and taking with another.
If we want everyone, on all kinds of incomes in all parts of the country, to be able to afford a decent place they can call their own, we need that affordable housing (social housing, shared ownership) as much as we need starter homes.
It can’t be either/or, and it doesn’t have to be. For the first time in a long while there is political space to go much bigger and be far more ambitious. Polls show housing is now a top five issue for voters – but no one party has captured the public’s attention, partly because the solutions have been piecemeal.
At the same time, the British Social Attitudes survey shows that rising anxiety has been matched by a collapse in NIMBYism across all demographics, including Conservative voters and the over 60s. Of course there will always still be some local resistance to any development, but politicians can at least take heart that it’s increasingly a minority sport.
It all adds up to a once in a generation chance to fix the problem. And a lot of the thinking on how to do it has already been done. Last year, Shelter worked with KPMG to work up a five year plan for whoever forms the next government for fixing our housing shortage. It’s a bold programme that combines modest extra investment in affordable housing with a plan to empower the private sector to build far more homes than it does – not through state dictat or a planning free-for-all, but a third way: getting land in to the hands of people who want to build at a cheaper price.
Whatever the solution adopted, commentators across left and right agree that fiddling at the edges simply won’t work, and will not fool those affected. Fixing this problem can be done. It’s in the government’s gift. As a country we have built the homes we need before. No party better understands this than the Conservatives, the party of Macmillan. It’s that spirit and big thinking that needs to be recaptured if everyone in this country is to have the security of a safety of an affordable home they can call their own.