Tim Patmore is Chair of Oxford East Conservatives and was Campaign Manager for a 40:40 seat in the 2015 General Election.
What would you say was the biggest indicator that someone was a Conservative nationwide?
Some might say it’s wealth. But if you’ve met any working class Tories or encountered any of the remaining pockets of elitist Lib Dems around the country, then you’d realise this is far from 100 per cent.
Is it where they live? Again, not so much, as surprisingly Oxford (where I live) – a quintessentially well to do, South Eastern city – is one of the few places we don’t have any Conservative district or county councillors.
The biggest, most reliable indicator of whether someone is a Conservative is said to be whether they own their own home or not.
People need a stake in the country they live in and, if they do, they vote accordingly. Added to this, from my own and many others’ experience one of the biggest issues on the doorstep is that of housing, so we do need to have a radical rethink of housing policy.
Just as Anthony Eden proposed the Right to Buy (later taken to full fruition by Lady T), and Harold Macmillan famously built 300,000 houses per year (as per Paul Goodman’s excellent article the other day), so this generation of Conservatives needs to leave its mark on housing policy.
And although Help to Buy is a step forward, and Theresa May’s new policy of encouraging councils to ‘build to rent’ shows the Government does regard this as a priority, both do not go far enough to reduce house prices and satiate the desire of 86 per cent of the population to own their own home (and so become dependable Conservative voters).
So what can we do? Well, as a tenant myself I only see a fraction of the problem and would be interested to hear what others ConservativeHome readers think. For what it’s worth, here are four suggestions:
First, we should stop Quantitive Easing. Printing large volumes of cash may seem like a harmless activity that ‘greases the wheels’ of the economy, but its effect is to inflate house prices. Put simply: if you have more money in circulation, then this increases the cost of buying a house, which exacerbates the problem of the man or woman on the street not being able to afford their own home. Although Quantitive Easing serves the function of keeping inflation above zero per cent, it’s really time that we developed a new part of the Long-Term Economic Plan to solve this, rather than a short-term fudge of printing money.
Second, we should stop thinking in terms of ‘the Government must build houses’. Part of the problem with housing policy is that it is victim to lazy socialist thinking that the Government must do everything and that the only way to build more houses is to spend taxpayers’ money on doing so. If we are really to blow the roof off our ability to build houses, we must use the state more intelligently as a way of encouraging and guiding house building in the private and charitable sectors, without government having to do it itself. This can be done simply by using government to enable house building and clear rocks out of the way to let the grass grow. In short, the Government should do nothing, but leave nothing undone.
Third, we should move beyond the trade-off between more housing and less green belt. It is possible to avoid this trade off by three methods: 1) building on brownfield, 2) building up, and 3) building down. The Government has already got to work on encouraging firms to build on brownfield land, but has done little about building up or building down. Admittedly there are difficulties with the approach of building more apartment blocks, and building cavernous lairs underground, but both problems are not insurmountable and more flats instead of just houses is certainly a good way of making more housing with less space. We should also appreciate that the many homeless people on our streets would rather have a house of their own almost anywhere than no house at all.
Fourth, and most crucially of all, is government should set an ambitious target which aims to solve the problem, not merely tread water. A million new homes per year has the virtue of being ambitious. When you are in business, you do not go into a negotiation asking for your compromise figure (i.e. 200,000 – 300,000 houses), but go for a strong, justifiable figure you can negotiate from. And a million new homes next year would stop the inexorable rise in property prices and would go a long way to ending the ‘jack-knifing’ of house prices highlighted by Oliver Letwin as a cause of many of our recessions (and so a source of great harm to our long-term economic growth).
This target also cascades down a radical approach to tackling housing shortages. Do we really need such excessive land banks around our cities when housing is so short? Should be allow whole streets of London to be filled with empty houses used as bargaining chips by wealthy oligarchs? Though we should not be excessive in how we tackle these issues, they are burning problems that must be addressed if we are to secure the majorities of the future.
Of course, housing is a controversial issue, and there is no silver bullet to any of these problems. What there should be though is an ambition to not just tinker around the edges of this problem, but really to solve it. If we don’t solve it, you can bet that Labour will, with their plans to remove green belt protections around cities and let councils borrow against their housing stock to build more council homes.
Let us follow in the footsteps of Disraeli, Eden, Macmillan, and Thatcher, and find a way to build a million new homes per year, without government money, and not on the green belt.