Rebecca Lowe is Director of FREER – a new initiative promoting economic and social liberalism, which is based at the IEA, where she is a Research Fellow. She is also an Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.
I’m going to write about what Boris Johnson didn’t say in his Telegraph column. No, not that one. His latest offering moved away from women’s liberation and on to housing market liberation. Yet, there was a notable omission: the phrase “green belt”.
A welcome feature of current debate is the growing consensus around the need to redress UK land use. Whether it’s how leaving the CAP will give us our first chance in forty years to make agricultural policies fit for this nation, or the changes urgently needed as exemplified by the astonishing rise of house prices and rents, it’s certainly true that land has landed at the top of the agenda.
With regards to what’s now universally called the “housing crisis”, increasing numbers agree that the problem is – at least very significantly – on the supply side. For too long, we haven’t built enough, and the current regulatory system makes it almost impossible to catch up.
The proposed policy options are: a) serious reform of the planning system, or b) tinkering around its edges, while flirting with yet-more-government-led building and lending schemes.
The first suggestion includes building on land that’s currently not designated for such purposes. And, for many people, if not Johnson, that must include some green-belt land, not least because parts of its expanded mass have been convincingly exposed as really not very green at all.
These once-radical arguments are now coming from across the political spectrum: from Labour’s Siobhain McDonagh to the Conservatives’ Liz Truss, and are also the subject of strong non-partisan campaigns, like John Myers’ London YIMBY. I’m delighted that FREER, the initiative I direct, will be publishing a paper on this in September, written by Simon Clarke.
But let’s play devil’s (Green Party) advocate for a moment. If we free up certain parts of the green belt now, the argument goes, who’s to say someone won’t do the same again in a few years’ time, and then again, and again, until there are no trees left? And no birds or bees. Then what?
Last weekend, I was in Kuala Lumpur. I was particularly excited about this because, back in the 1950s, my dad lived there for a year. I went to search out the beautiful old house his family stayed in, and learnt that it had recently been demolished, and that a fancy identikit hotel was about to open on the site. I didn’t have time to look into it properly, but Wikipedia tells me there was much protest about the house’s demolition. There are complicating factors at play in this specific story, but it leads us to a neat idealised example.
Let’s imagine a dilapidated but somewhat attractive building in some not-particularly wealthy town, and that local people feel this building plays some small historic or cultural role within their neighbourhood. Let’s imagine, however, that demolishing it would make space for something functional of vastly greater local economic value: a supermarket, a business centre, or a block of flats. No matter how promising that might sound, we’d have some questions before supporting the building’s demolition.
Most obviously, we’d want to know who owned it. We don’t have time to get deep into property rights, and the minefield of properly justifying initial acquisition, however, so let’s imagine it belongs to the state. It’s an unused council building, in need of expensive renovation. Now, multiply the all-too-easy conclusion that it should definitely be demolished, and, suddenly, we’re in the panicked space where people fear that every last one of the UK’s trees and historic houses will be sucked up by property developers, if we just relax the planning rules a little.
And what about those of us who secretly, momentarily, think: go on! Sell it all. Develop it all. It’ll drive up growth and wealth. Because that’s the sole logical progression, isn’t it?
No. Limits are not always inherently bad: they don’t necessarily restrict your freedom in an unacceptable way. After all, agreeing to be part of organised society is accepting some limits. First, not everything is – or should be – for sale, in a good society. Your birth certificate, your right to vote, your liver, your baby brother: we all have some limits. We might question who gets to set those limits, but we need to accept there can be some.
Second, is a point about value and freedom. A Picasso has much greater value than the canvas on which it’s painted – but so do the scribbles that baby brother of yours brings home from nursery. So, freeing up land to build houses is never going to be our only concern; we can be concerned about that, and about preserving the environment, or protecting culturally significant landmarks, too. Freedom isn’t the only important value in a good society. And, sure, we value wealth creation, but that isn’t the only thing we value, or the only thing we should be free to do. It’s all about balance.
But where does home ownership fit? For most people, their home has value over and above the amount for which it might sell in the current or future housing market, and the way in which it benefits the wider economy. Ownership gives people a stake in society, one that’s more than simply financial. Home ownership is about family, and community, and more.
So, maybe it’s wrong to have state schools, and swimming pools, and administrative buildings? Maybe we should demolish them all, free up some cash, and ensure all-round home ownership?
Well, beyond the need to balance conflicting values yet again, the key point here is that, no matter how fundamentally human the feeling of home ownership might be, that doesn’t mean that owning a home is something the state owes us. Shelter, yes – few might disagree about that. But you’d need to surpass even Jeremy Corbyn’s requisition-boy levels to think that owning a home is some kind of universal right, for which the correlative obligation must to be met by the state and therefore by taxpayers.
Nonetheless, outside of the straw-man idea that freeing up some land equates to being obliged to free up all of the land, questions remain. What if the freedoms and assets that others attained in the past are preventing people today and tomorrow from acquiring the same? If you’re lucky enough to own a home is it fair that the system, which protects your interests, is preventing others from being able to do so?
Increasing the number of houses in your village might make it less picturesque, and might decrease the value of your house. We can talk all day about incentive schemes to help with that, but, sooner or later, something fundamental will have to give.
Those words Johnson didn’t mention are clearly the starter home here. Much of the “green belt” isn’t green. Much of it isn’t obviously aesthetically valuable in any way. Building on some of it isn’t the whole solution, but it’s clearly part of it.