Housing remains critical to the electorate and to conservatism

Housing remains a top five issue for voters in this country. The Conservative Party needs to grasp it and offer solutions in order both to ensure that it remains the party of aspiration and to guarantee its long term survival. Had the 2015 General Election been decided by those renting privately, let alone by those who rent across both social and private housing, Ed Miliband would now be Prime Minister, whereas home owners and mortgagees overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

The Conservative Party in periods of great electoral success, from Baldwin to Macmillan to Thatcher, has always expanded home ownership. Rising home ownership is the greatest possible example of spreading wealth. And 86 per cent of Brits still want to own. The Tory party cannot claim to be the party of aspiration when home ownership is crumbling and people’s desire to own is thwarted not by their failure to work hard and do the right thing, but by poor government policies.

On the issue of home ownership, there has been a lot of post-truth politics from the Left. The UK is an outlier in our housing tenure. But far from being a nation of home owners, peculiarly obsessed with ownership, 2014 data showed us to have the fourth lowest rate of ownership in the EU and EEA (4th out of 33). But the same data shows we do have a lot of council housing – actually the fourth highest amount of sub-market rented housing out of 33 countries. So more council homes are not the way other nations solve their housing problems. Large amounts of council housing in the UK has not prevented our housing crisis – and predominantly market-orientated systems operate in the rest of the Europe.

Sadly, from 2010-15 home ownership continued to fall as it has done since roughly the turn of the millennium. There were a host of policies in the 2015 Manifesto rolled out to help reverse this – from Starter Homes to extending Right to Buy to extending Help to Buy Equity Loan. Most of these policies also had a supply side element as well as trying to boost home ownership – even Right to Buy recycled the receipts from any sale into building new homes.
But ultimately we need a system change to accelerate delivery of new homes to build 250,000 homes a year. The indication from Government is that they take this challenge seriously. Next week’s Housing White Paper seems likely to avoid being just a series of recycled announcements, and will genuinely set up a system capable of delivering 250,000 homes a year.

This will not be welcome news to everyone. Across Conservative heartlands, the Liberal Democrats are relearning their shameless approach to housing – talk a big game nationally while fighting it locally – joined by UKIP and an alliance of ‘independent’ anti-housing groups. On top of this, some Tories are conflicted about meeting local housing need. It is this Conservative ambiguity that is the greatest threat to resolving the UK housing crisis.

Maybe in My Backyard

Conservatives in 2011 were largely opposed to new homes, thanks in part due to a crass campaign by George Osborne and the Treasury which implied concreting over England’s green fields was a price worth paying for higher GDP statistics. To be fair, the Treasury has since moved on – albeit they could still go further in realising that housing is not just about dry numbers. The emotional fight put forward by David Cameron and Nick Boles, among others, that falling home ownership required more homes to be built, largely managed to persuade MPs of the urgency of the situation.

However, on the ground NIMBYs continue to fall into two groups. The first is a small group of irreconcilables that oppose all new homes. Another larger group have legitimate concerns about infrastructure, congestion, design and so on. Polling has always been clear: well-designed homes with good infrastructure, and which are seen as at least partially benefitting local people, are supported by an overwhelming majority. The reverse – ugly homes without infrastructure that deliver no local benefit – are opposed by clear majorities.

This was part of the reason for Starter Homes.  It was hoped that we could offer local people discounted homes for their children as part of any development, changing who would obtain these properties so that local communities and those in work benefitted. On design, polling shows that you can get a figure from 61 per cent opposed to 75 per cent in favour by showing people what new homes will look like: the vast majority of people are neither Not-In-My-Backyarders nor Yes-In-My-Backyarders but Maybe-In-My-Backyarders. National arguments will help, but they are not enough.

All Housing is Local

Thus, not least to rescue home ownership, the Conservative Party is now in favour of new homes in principle and the abstract. The problem with this national and abstract support is that all planning and housing is local: what is needed is for each and every area to deliver the number of homes that is needed. Yet it is still often opposed in practice – sometimes for fair reasons, sometimes for unfair ones.

Our excellent new Housing and Planning Minister, Gavin Barwell, and his radical (in a positive sense) Secretary of State Sajid Javid seem likely to grasp the biggest issue in housing – namely, ensuring that delivery takes place across the country, particularly in high demand areas.  The Housing White Paper will take a major step forward in setting up mechanisms in planning ranging from the major developers to councils and others to make this come true.

What is going to be needed after this is a period where we try to take the measures forward as a party. As Conservatives that understand the importance of housing and home ownership we need to be constructive allies of Javid and Barwell. We need to work out how to help deliver homes, and raise legitimate points about how the system can be improved – focusing on how to ensure good design in, infrastructure with, and local benefits to, new homes.

If the Conservative coalition respond in this way, it will push the construction sector, planners and others to respond in kind, since developers and other parts of the private and public sector will need to respond intelligently to the challenges set out in the White Paper. Publication of the White Paper will mark the start, not the end, of a process.