Benedict McAleenan is a former Conservative Agent and currently works in Public Affairs at Edelman.
“If I’m still Planning Minister after the next election, I want you to take out a gun and shoot me,” said Nick Boles at last year’s Tory conference. It was punchy stuff for a relatively junior Minister – even one so close to the PM – but most would sympathise with the sentiment. Boles has been busily slaying the planning system’s sacred cows for a long time now. He must be tired of being shouted at.
But that does not mean that the work is done. Britain still has a housing crisis. Lack of supply is now a social, moral issue as much as an economic one. I’m no Thomas Picketty, but the rate at which asset values are rising is undeniably damaging the prospects of the young. So this week’s promotion of Brandon Lewis to a reunited housing and planning brief at Minister of State level is excellent news for the sector.
When Kris Hopkins took on the role, Number 10 was criticised for demoting the issue to Under-Secretary level – a junior post in the Ministerial hierarchy. A reversal of that move is wise – as a sign to industry, if nothing else. On top of the promotion, it was worthwhile reuniting the housing and planning briefs to give that Minister a strategic overview of how the nation can build the 250,000 new homes we need each year. Working with housing associations, the private sector and local councils (and getting them all to work together) is not something you can do effectively from two different standpoints.
Brandon Lewis is also a good man for the job. He has a barrister’s brain, a company director’s perspective and five years as a council leader. A very good combination.
There have been a few grumblings in the sector that the portfolio still isn’t a Cabinet role. Fine. But in Help to Buy, the Chancellor pitched his reputation on a policy that has pulled supply upwards from the demand side. IDS has fought hard on housing benefit reforms designed to release spare housing capacity for the thousands of desperate families on council house waiting lists. And Eric Pickles is the sort of battle-hardened politician who’s prepared to take on councils like Islington (48 Labour councillors and one Green…) who refuse to allow planning reforms that can address the crisis.
So housing supply is being taken on at the highest level. Also worth noting is the role of Alex Morton, who has been quietly developing policy for a Conservative manifesto that will boost supply for the young. He wasn’t always so quiet – on these pages and at Policy Exchange he has been a leading voice for freeing up the planning system’s stranglehold on land supply.
Another sign that housing is increasingly a priority was last week’s latest flip-flop from the Lib Dems. Once hearty promoters of removing the spare room subsidy, they have used it to step away from their Coalition partners. Danny Alexander is no fool – this issue has been chosen because they need to have distinct positions on key issues. It is significant that a housing question was one of the first out of the gate. Similarly, we can expect the conclusions of Labour’s housing policy review by Sir Michael Lyons to take centre stage at their party conference in Manchester (and, by the way, there have been some potentially sensible suggestions from Sir Michael so far – Brandon Lewis should be prepared to avoid condemning decent ideas for political expedience).
Nick Boles was a great planning minister because he slew those sacred cows, but there is still a herd of them happily ruminating, blocking up the country lane to reform. Mr Lewis could start with busting the many myths about the green belt, or looking again at borrowing caps on the Housing Revenue Account. Whether he’ll be willing to do so just before an election in which the UKIPers of the Shires loom large is anyone’s guess. But I hope he is sharpening his knife.