Alex Morton is Head of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and is a former Number Ten Policy Unit Member.
A very large part of the Chesham and Amersham result was driven by the shamelessly and ruthlessly NIMBYist approach of the Liberal Democrats on both housing and HS2.
As Ed Davey put it just before the election, “we are seeing a promising number of Conservatives switching to us, because they want to say no… we don’t want these planning reforms.”
This now-notorious Lib Dem leaflet sets out the strategy: no policies bar opposing development. MPs who campaigned state the issues on the doorstep were new housing and HS2. Pure NIMBYism is a powerful force in the South of England.
So how do the Conservatives tackle the issue? The Government certainly needs to adjust its course – but it cannot ditch planning reform altogether. Ultimately, we still desperately need more homes, especially in London and the South-East where pressures are greatest. The current reforms contain a great deal of good.
But the truth is another issue sits alongside planning, which Westminster is not focusing on, but which sits on voters’ and MPs minds when contemplating new homes: immigration.
The politics of new homes in London and the South is complicated
A critical political argument for new housebuilding is it will protect the Conservatives majority longer term. Homeowners vote Tory, renters don’t. The argument made to Southern MPs is more homes and more homeowners will secure their electoral base.
But, while correct on a macro scale, this argument is not necessarily so on the micro. Many MPs note that the new homes built in their constituencies are often most attractive to, and affordable for, those leaving London. But as London’s housing pressures spill over into the Home Counties, so do London’s political attitudes.
This helps to explain why commuter constituencies like Canterbury and Bedford are becoming marginals: internal migration drives up anti-Conservative ex-London voter numbers. While Brexit accelerated this, between 2010 and 2015 Outer London (the ‘doughnut’ that twice elected Boris Johnson as Mayor) swung from Tory to Labour, even as the rest of the country moved the other way.
In the North, nice new homes often bring Tory voters – as Peter Mandelson noticed revisiting his old Hartlepool seat. But new housing in the south annoys existing Conservative voters without always bringing new ones. The conversion process will still probably work longer-term, as new voters relax into home ownership and shed London attitudes. But MPs understandably think in five or ten year horizans.
Making things worse, many Southern MPs face not Labour, but the Lib Dems or the Greens, boasting to middle-class voters they are pro-immigration (unlike ‘nasty’ Tories), while also shamelessly arguing they will block new homes locally. Labour cannot do this, as it knows that it must deliver if it wins.
Meanwhile, Tory-inclined voters are susceptible to another simple message: new homes are only needed due to migration. They feel the problem is hundreds of thousands of new arrivals a year, who need extra homes, meaning concreting over the South-East.
The current system of housing targets enables a dishonest political debate
So how do Conservatives tackle this problem? This, I am afraid, is where it gets technical. But it first involves admitting voters have a point about immigration.
Currently, Government housing targets are based on a 2014 estimate (using data from 2012-2014) that we are creating 214,000 new households a year. Various tweaks are done to turn this household number into a housing target, including adjustments based on affordability. The end result is a national target for new housing, as of December 2020, of 297,000 a year.
The 214,000 households figure assumes net international migration (i.e. the difference between those arriving and leaving) of around 170,000 people annually. So, under current estimates, around 37 per cent of all new homes are needed due to net international migration. So the anti-immigration lobby have a point. But even with zero net migration, we would need many more homes.
However, immigration is very clearly pushing up the numbers needed, and has a disproportionate effect in the South. For the key years 2012-2014, around 50-60 per cent of net international migration went to London, the South East, and the East). This pushed up their housing need most. Even pre-pandemic, London’s population would be falling without international migration, but international migration drives it back up, rippling out over time in terms of housing targets across the South.
Why does this matter politically? It shows it is logically absurd for any party to promise both higher levels of net immigration and yet lower housebuilding in the South. But that is exactly what the Lib Dems and Greens do. And they get away with it because of the current lack of transparency around housing need calculations.
We need to include net migration figures in the local plans
We’d need more homes even if with zero net migration – because we have not built enough for years. As I pointed out in my day job at the Centre for Policy Studies, the 2010s were the worst modern decade for housebuilding – and every decade has got worse since the 1960s.
But one way for the Conservatives to change the politics of planning – and show their immigration controls are crucial – is a clearer link between migration numbers and local housing need. The new Planning Bill should ensure that each local plan periodically adjusts housing targets and housing need in line with net migration. This would inject honesty into the housing debate.
As noted, current housing plans are based on net international migration of 170,000 a year. If net migration fell to 50,000, we would need 60,000 fewer homes a year (assuming roughly one home for two new people). If it rose to 350,000, it would mean 90,000 more homes each year.
If the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens, want to argue for more immigration nationally, it should be clear this means more homes in each area. This would fundamentally change the debate in the South. In Chiltern District Council, home to Chesham and Amersham, the difference between annual national net immigration going down to 50,000 or up to 300,000 would be several thousand extra homes in the next ten years. Pro-migration, NIMBY parties would have to choose.
The worst outcome would be higher net immigration and weakened planning reform
The worst outcome for home ownership is higher net immigration plus weaker planning reform. Yet in the wake of Chesham & Amersham, this seems very likely. Currently, annual net migration is running at 281,000 – or around 110,000 more people a year than 2014 projections. This means 55,000 more homes a year since the 2014 projections – more than the entire rise planned last year after the planning reform row.
Higher migration but no planning reform is also the worst possible result for the Conservative Party. It would exacerbate London and the South’s problems – creating new voters who don’t vote Tory through higher migration, annoying existing Tory voters with new homes, but not delivering enough home ownership to capture new voters.
Housing numbers and migration are an example of Morton’s political triangle. You cannot please everyone. Government policy is currently pro-migration (in numbers not rhetoric) and pro-housebuilding. Both positions put off voters in Chesham. Yet ditching planning reforms while keeping higher migration dooms the Tories in London and the South longer term. The best shot for the Conservatives in the South is more homes and lower immigration – and this, not ditching planning reform, should be their next step.