Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
The winds on housing are shifting. I don’t always agree with David Orr, but he was right to trumpet that NIMBYism is on the wane last week on this site – though much faster in the abstract than the concrete. There is the space for a pro-development push by the Conservative Party. But this makes political sensitivity allied to policy detail even more important.
A fortnight ago I argued in this column that Tories needed to back Sajid Javid and Gavin Barwell as they developed the White Paper, and now it is published I think that this is more crucial than ever. It means offering constructive advice – while accepting the principle of building more homes. It was frustrating to watch some of our MPs dedicate their question to Javid to try to stop or evade local development rather than help create policy to support it. It was a reminder that, as Government moves forward in partnership with the wider Conservative movement and the housing sector, the need for political sensitivity is stronger than ever.
This is particularly true because so much of the policy announced yesterday relies upon further detail in implementation or, in parts, needs to be stronger. There is no point in increasing housing numbers in local plans if there are no new sanctions for councils that don’t have a local plan, or to introduce a system to intervene to put a local plan in place. The delivery test is rather weak, and again has insufficient sanctions. Much of the White Paper is excellent and a skeleton for delivery, but it will need work to put flesh on the bones.
However, most worthwhile policy shifts take time. Take for example green belt. There is space for Ministers to begin to lay the groundwork for change now. The Government has announced that, following consultation, neighbourhood plans can allow development through neighbourhood development orders on the green belt. Neighbourhood plans are drawn up by parishes or smaller areas such as wards in towns, require a local vote, and set out local decisions on where housing should go and what it should look like. Allowing neighbourhood plans to amend green belt sits within the manifesto commitment to maintain existing protections or allow local control – and the Manifesto was drafted deliberately to create such flexibility.
Unfortunately, the Government proposes allowing amending green belt in neighbourhood plans only if such development preserves openness, and does not conflict with the purposes of the green belt. This essentially rules out almost all development on the belt, since any building will impact on its spatial and visual openness, and five reasons for green belt (which focus on restricting development in the countryside near towns.)
If this restriction were removed, and local people genuinely could create a neighbourhood plan – and vote for it – that amended green belt in their parish or area, the impact of this in the medium term would be very powerful. If local people were voting up and down the country to build homes directly on the low value intensive farmland and scrubland that makes up parts of the green belt, the policy debate would begin to shift. People who would have a home of their own due to such neighbourhood plans would be the faces of revising green belt policy – and it is likely that low cost ownership homes in many communities would be attractive.
This issue around how policy interacts with political imperatives is also at play around the shift in supporting renting. Helping people who cannot own is a sensible goal, and was perhaps too neglected under the last administration. This was in part because you need a clear election message rather than nuance if you are going to cut through. The policies around longer-term tenancies and the goal of increasing build to rent are a shift toward rebalancing policy so that it speaks to everyone.
But among most people in Government there is an understanding that while helping those who are renting is important, the vast majority want to own. Among Conservatives this rises to a staggering 90 per cent. This figure of around 85 per cent support for ownership is consistent in every social attitudes survey back into the mid 1990s. Thus any shift around rental policy needs to be more clearly framed accordingly – particularly when much of the White Paper still backed ownership.
Tenure also links to supply: there was a reason why David Cameron hammered on about home ownership and housing supply in the same breath. The graph at the top of this article sets out what homes people feel are needed in their local area. Shared ownership, homes to buy (at a discount these would be even more popular) and council homes are all quite popular. Private rented homes are wanted by less than five per cent of the public.
If you get dragged into an argument about renting versus owning, it will quickly become about the need for more council homes. Labour MPs in the Commons yesterday made this point repeatedly: if we are backing renting, why not build more council homes? To win over Tory hearts and minds, new homes must link to home ownership.
Of course, build to rent and longer term tenancies should have a role, not least because it diversifies supply, accelerates build out rates and can help provide a quality alternative, particularly for those on moderate incomes in their 20s and 30s. Yet ownership and shared ownership are not only desired in themselves, people want to see those types of homes being built near to them. Any attempt to push supply needs to take this into account.
The politics of housing remains fraught with difficulty. The White Paper was a good attempt at setting out some of the mechanisms around putting local plans in place and forcing up delivery. Whether it works will require not just policy details but political sensitivity – but we should all be supporting Barwell and Javid as they try to fix this difficult problem, and yesterday’s White Paper was a good start along that path.