ConservativeHome’s inbox is a useful barometer of the Tory mood. It has been crammed since the election with prospective pieces about the youngest tranche of voters, of which Ben Jeffreys’ recent piece on this site was a classic example. It urged scrapping tuition fees and giving young people votes at 16.
Whether one agrees with his policy prescriptions or not, they catch the flavour of a post-election Conservative preoccupation. Students in particular and younger voters in general are seen to have risen up from political torpor, and made all the difference between a majority and none – Julian Brazier’s fate in Canterbury providing a stark example.
Whilst we await a definitive turnout figure, there can be little doubt that students turned out in big numbers for Labour in key seats. The focus on the very youngest people is understandable. They have no experience of living under socialist government – which is why the Party must make the case for conservatism to a new generation of voters.
But it is not just among 18-24 year olds that the party did very badly. It fared almost as poorly among the next group up the age range – the 25 to 34s. According to Lord Ashcroft’s 14,000-person election day survey, only 18 per cent of 18-25s voted Tory. Among 25-34s, that total rose to only 22 per cent.
What is undoubtedly happening is that this section of voters, who have mostly left full-time education behind and entered the world of work, are being pushed down towards the tranche below them, in terms of their voting profile, rather than being pulled up towards the groups above them, who are more likely to vote Conservative.
It is impossible to believe that this change in voting behaviour has nothing to do with housing provision. One reads different figures for the age of first-time buyers – one recent estimate is 32 – but there is little doubt that it has risen over time (it will be higher than the average in the greater South East, including the capital, and lower outside it).
Postponing buying a home can also mean postponing having children. This has the effect of prelonging youth, postponing middle age and thus delaying having a fuller stake in the system. Homes and families go together – and both have been a feature of conservatism in Britain from Salisbury’s Villa Toryism through Macmillan’s housebuilding to Thatcher’s council house sales.
Raising home ownership rates over time is thus integral to Conservative electoral success. It is currently at its lowest level for 30 years. This is not just a problem for the Party in London, though it is playing a big part in its problems there. Keith Joseph spoke in the 1970s of reversing the ratchet of socialism. We need now to reverse the ratchet of falling home ownership.
The centrepiece of the Conservative manifesto was new council housing deals with local authorities to build “new fixed-term social houses, which will be sold privately after ten to fifteen years with an automatic Right to Buy for tenants, the proceeds of which will be recycled into further homes”.
The presentation of the policy stressed the council housing aspect, doubtless in order to appeal to poorer voters in the midlands and north, at the expense of the home ownership aspect. This was not wholly unsuccessful. But it will have irritated some Party members, and will thus make the proposal harder to revisit.
This is a pity, because this approach is very similar to the one set out in our own ConservativeHome manifesto three years ago, in which we said that councils, housing associations and other registered social landlords should funded to build new homes: “this new support would be conditional on making these new homes available through schemes that help tenants to become owners”.
We would want to move faster towards home ownership than the timeframe which May proposed a few weeks ago, but the broad outline of the policy was right. The question is how to deliver as much of it as possible during this Parliament. Which brings us to Sajid Javid.
The re-appointed Communities Secretary declared his hand on this site after his original appointment last year. “The average house costs almost eight times what most people earn in a year,” he wrote. “And saving for a deposit is impossible when prices keep rising and half your wages already go on rent. It’s turning us into a divided nation of property haves and have-nots.”
“In January, I will also be publishing a Housing White Paper that will set out plans to get even more new homes built,” he said. “And I’ve been very clear with local authorities that I will back them all the way if they put forward robust, well-reasoned, locally-driven plans to get homes built in their area – even if that means making some difficult decisions.”
Javid knows very well that pushing home ownership rates up further isn’t simply a matter of more planning permissions (there is the problem of land banking) or even of building more homes (as we pointed out in our manifesto, there was a building boom under Labour, “but one in which home ownership and lending to first-time buyers fell, while house prices and buy-to-let mortgages shot up”.
But it will be impossible to raise home ownership rates – thus giving younger voters a stake in capitalism – without building more houses. Fortunately, there are means to hand without having to introduce a big housing bill that would almost certainly get savaged in this almost-hung-post-election Commons, before going on to get mauled in the Lords.
As Alex Morton pointed out when considering the White Paper, delivery detail will decide whether Ministers deliver more homes: “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.”
It is no secret that Number Ten was cautious pre-election about how to follow up the White Paper where Javid preferred to be bold: it is a big plus for the Government that it has a Communities Secretary committed to delivering more housing – and thus putting in place the basis for a Tory electoral recovery among younger voters.
The trick will be to do thus without delivering a housing equivalent of the social care voter implosion of earlier this month. Javid will want to avoid a similar “big bang”. The key is a needs assessment for each area based on robust data which local authorities are not able to water down the point where nothing much gets built at all.
CLG has long been keen on helping industry to accelerate modern methods of construction, which could be specified in planning permissions, and getting a bigger range of developers into housing. This was all presaged in the White Paper. But obtaining proper needs assessments should be Javid’s means of beginning to unlock the jam over time.
One fortunate side-effect in this case of the small working majority (now that the DUP pact is in place) is the increased power and scope of Cabinet Ministers. The Communities Secretary will want to press on, even if this does nothing, in the short-term, to raise his standing in the ConHome league table and, more importantly, with his parliamentary colleages.