Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.
The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto made a clear pledge to Northern voters. We said: “We will use … historic investment to level up and connect this country, so that everyone can get a fair share of its future prosperity.”
I support levelling up 100 percent. Yet the Government’s housing targets now threaten that agenda and whilst, for the moment, it is suburban and shire Tory MPs who are speaking for their constituents and opposing these new and damaging targets, it is Red Wall and swing-seat MPs who perhaps have the most to lose.
Today, I am leading a Backbench debate in Parliament on the housing targets and the Housing and Planning White Paper. Politically, getting this policy right will help us to win the next election; getting it wrong will result in electoral pain for years, to say nothing of the wider economic, social and environmental ramifications.
If ‘levelling up’ means anything, it surely means an integrated Government plan to support infrastructure, jobs, and housing to revive the Midlands and Northern towns overlooked in recent decades, and to stop the endless drift of jobs and opportunities to the shires.
But, broadly speaking, the new housing algorithm undermines our Levelling Up pledge. It concentrates the biggest falls in housing targets in the urban North and Midlands – the very areas we pledged to level up, and the biggest increases in requirements in London and the South, where the wealth already is.
Worse, if infrastructure funding is going to follow housing, as the Government says, that means that money which Northern and Midland MPs hoped, indeed assumed, would be invested in their patches is instead going to the suburbs and shires.
In general, the case for Levelling Up is overwhelming. Just looking at population alone, whilst the population of the North East has grown by just two percent since 1961 in the South East it’s 28 percent, in North West it was seven percent and opposed to the South West’s 31 percent.
Northern cities fare even worse. Since 1961, the cities of: Newcastle, Sunderland, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Stoke, have all declined in absolute numbers, according to research from the House of Commons Library. Liverpool alone has seen an absolute population decline of over 300,000 people since 1910. The revival of Northern and Midland cities is vital both for those cities but also the suburbs and rural areas around them.
Yet the housing targets for major cities are set to decline. Targets for Liverpool and Newcastle are 48 per cent and 56 per cent lower than recent building rates. In Preston the new targets see a decline of 24 percent over the local plan for – 1,827 fewer homes over 15 years. In Doncaster the new targets see a decline of 22 percent over the local plan for a total of 4,039 fewer homes.
These are not isolated cases; there are more than 30 northern Local Planning Authorities with targets less than their local plan. This isn’t ‘build build build’, it’s ‘please don’t build, build, build’.
Whilst city targets are being lowered, the targets for suburbs and shires around them, including in the Midlands and North, will be raised substantially. So, over 15 years and compared with local plans, Manchester is expected to build less, but the suburbs and rural seats around it will be expected to build much more, and on greenfield too.
Let me give you another example. Targets for Nottingham city, where there are three Labour seats, fall by 3,700, whilst Nottinghamshire rises an additional 25,000 to 71,000 – the equivalent of 14 new small towns. Many of those major new developments will be in four historic Labour/Tory swing seats, three of which are now Tory but were Labour a decade ago. This is bad environmentally and economically, but also politically.
Whilst we don’t yet know the long-term impact, if any, of Covid, it is likely to speed-up the process of home working, which means less office space in cities and more space for housing. Therefore, the ‘rebalancing’ away from cities seems even more bizarre. So whilst these planning targets are bad for the South, they are equally damaging for the Midlands and the North.
The worst of all worlds is to hollow out our cities, urbanise our suburbs, and suburbanise the countryside, and in doing so, focus infrastructure spending away from where it is needed. I fear that this is what we may accidentally achieve, despite our good intentions.
This is not levelling up. It is concreting out. Tory shire voters will be furious. Red Wall voters will feel betrayed. This is lose/lose.
Conservative MPs need to work with Government to inject a dose of common sense to develop housing policy which supports home-owning aspiration as well as protecting and respecting the environment. The fate of our newly-elected friends in the North may, in part, depend on it.