Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence. He served as a London Borough Councillor for 20 years and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. Between 1994 and 1995 he served as Chairman of the National Young Conservatives.
Whilst we await the publication of the forthcoming White Paper, the Government’s “Levelling Up” agenda is currently focused on increasing state expenditure on a range of public services and urban infrastructure, establishing a series of freeports and promoting adult re-training. All very costly, but potentially highly worthy.
However, nothing much there to grab the imagination of the voters and turbocharge their drive to the polls. Likewise, the impact of “the offer” could be even less if underlying economic circumstances conspire to reduce the levels of intended expenditure.
I believe that the Conservatives need to take a more radical step. Since the era of “Villa Conservatism” under Lord Salisbury, Conservatives have realised that there exists a correlation between the ownership of property (and the realistic ambition of owning property in the foreseeable future) and voting for our Party.
The Conservatives alone are indelibly associated the policy of wider-spread home ownership. The Labour Party traditionally favours collectivism to enforce economic equality. The Liberals had no ideological objection to private property, but in practice they did little to encourage the spread of home ownership amongst the working classes. In the early Twentieth Century.
Later, the Liberals were obsessed with outbidding the infant Labour Party, and after the Second World War they supported the mixed economy consensus and restricted their idealism to dreams of a federal Europe.
In contrast, the Conservatives proudly attached themselves to the housing construction boom of the inter-war years that resulted in ‘Metroland’ and the building of millions of still enduring semi-detached homes. By the 1959, they were showing the archetypal nuclear family sitting around the family dining table beneath the slogan “Life’s Better with the Conservatives”. The message of both comfort and aspiration was transparent.
The Conservative identification with home ownership reached its peak with Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy legislation in the 1980s. Since then, with the notable exception of a few discounts and subsidies, the Conservatives have left general housing provision to the market whilst supporting housing associations in the public sector.
A combination of internal population growth, paucity of development land, large-scale immigration, and enforcement of strict planning controls has resulted in insufficient homes being constructed. Unsurprisingly, demand outstripping supply has led to an astronomical increase in prices over the past three decades, often to the point where the average double-incomed middle-class family can no longer contemplate home ownership without parental assistance.
Failure to recognise the extent of this problem led to the near catastrophic blunder in the 2017 Conservative election manifesto of linking payment of social care bills to the sale of existing family homes.
Many middle-class children, fast approaching middle-age, are left banking on their inheritance as their only guarantee of property ownership. In effect, the message that the Conservatives inadvertently sent out was that, with salaries relatively stagnant, henceforth property ownership was only for the wealthy and many of those raised in privately-owned homes would just have to get used to living in rented accommodation for the foreseeable future.
Instead of raising themselves up higher, this generation were faced with sliding down the social scale. This often was a particularly bitter pill to swallow as the younger members of the family were often better educated than their forebear, and had been reared on their parent’s belief that hard work and qualifications would secure their future prosperity.
No wonder then that the Conservatives have increasingly lost support amongst graduates in the 30-40 age bracket. We often attribute this phenomenon to their indoctrination by socialist academics in student years, but it is arguably just as dependent on the decline in property-ownership, with all the insecurities that this brings with the approach of old age. Many now possess the education of the middle class, but none of the means to support their desired lifestyle.
If future prospects of home ownership are daunting for the middle-class, they are far worse for the working class. Here the notion of property ownership is little more than a fantasy. The private rented sector is increasingly expensive due to over-regulation and the only alternative held out by Labour is a lifetime on a council estate. Council and Housing Association homes provide immediate security, but, in practice, the quality of life is always dependent on the housing allocation policies of the local authority.
Into this already problematic situation one has to factor the impact of continuing population growth and immigration. Last year the Government issued an invitation to British passport holders in Hong Kong to come to live in the UK. This was a noble gesture, but with a maximum entry of up to three million people it is obvious that it could have a massive impact on home ownership.
I believe that the Government can turn this situation around and make the resulting policy the flagship of “Levelling Up”. Conservatives must oversee the construction of millions of attractive, high-quality family homes, and be prepared to heavily subsidise this programme. The drab municipal uniformity of the consensus years has to be replaced by innovative design and physical individualism of each new home. Prince Charles’s Poundbury should provide inspiration.
However, this is not a plea for the government to construct more state-controlled houses. These homes are not intended to be operated as “social housing” in perpetuity.
The Party must adopt an ambitious Rent to Buy policy. The state will assist with the cost of construction and overseeing of the project, but the people who move into these properties do so with the intention of purchasing them by paying a higher level of rent over a 30-year period. Conservatives can both relieve overcrowding and extend home ownership simultaneously, without the beneficiaries being burdened by the prohibitive cost of deposits and the banks having to issue unstable mortgages. A successful Rent to Buy scheme holds out the prospect of a tangible material improvement in the lives of people throughout England.
When a councillor, I used to discuss this concept with colleagues, but, ironically, it was the Liberal Democrats who first officially adopted the policy in 2017. Foolishly, they never developed or sold the concept and instead defaulted to plugging their European obsession to the point of electoral destruction.
However, the Liberal Democrat policy was, in my opinion, rather too cautious. They envisaged that it would only be open to those who were already able to attain a conventional mortgage and stated that it was not intended as a replacement for social housing. Conservatives have to go further. If we want to live in a society where the majority own their own home, we need to be prepared to give every assistance to working families to do so. That will be costly, but it is infinitely preferable to blustering into a massive emergency programme of council house building, which could be the consequence of continued inaction.
Rent to Buy provides a route out of dependency and towards a future private ownership. There is no doubt that a huge amount of research will have to be done into the potential benefits and pitfalls of such an ambitious scheme, but this process must start now and the final policy must be settled and adopted before the next general election.
The constituents of Hartlepool showed recently that they were fed up with Labour’s socialist offer and were looking for an alternative Conservative proposal to improve their lives. Rent to Buy might just be the jewel in the crown of Boris’s agenda and the signature policy for which he will be known by future generations.