With housing now increasingly recognised as one of the biggest long-term crises facing the Conservatives (and, indeed, the nation), any news of some movement on the subject by the Government is welcome.
Yet the new policies detailed in this morning’s Sunday Telegraph suggest that ministers are trying to find ways of generating some good headlines on housing without addressing the fundamental issues involved.
In fact, it’s hard to think of a policy more precisely targeted to avoid the actual victims of Britain’s dysfunctional housing market than a series of interventions intended to smooth the process of buying and selling houses. Responding to a crisis in asset ownership by legislating to comfort those who already own them exhibits an almost satirical take on the Tory instinct.
Still, at least this latest initiative is merely beside the point. That’s more than can be said for Help to Buy, the Government’s bid to ameliorate a supply-side problem in the housing market by pumping more demand into it.
To be fair to ministers, they are in an unenviable position, and not just because they need to provide a semblance of a domestic agenda whilst trying to navigate Brexit without a Commons majority. Any Conservative government which finally sets itself to tackling the housing issue head-on will face huge challenges.
It would need to face down bitter opposition in the Party’s heartlands, and from many of its representatives in local government – even on brownfield sites. It would also need to reconcile political demand for ‘cheap’ housing with the economic reality that a huge amount of the modern British economy is secured against high-value property.
But if this Government can’t tackle two huge national challenges at once, but still needs to show that they’re doing something on housing and offer something concrete to younger voters, there is an obvious positive step they could take: ending George Osborne’s crackdown on buy-to-let landlords.
Without another home-ownership boom, rental will remain the part of the housing market which predominantly caters to the under-47 voters the Party is struggling with. And as with property prices, so with rents: the political goal is to bring costs down.
That’s what Sadiq Khan is doing with his ‘London Living Rents‘. But rent controls, just like the excessively stringent standards some local authorities impose on rental properties, lead to restricted availability and reward the few at the expense of the rest.
Likewise, it’s difficult to see who the Coalition’s moves against buy-to-let investments are supposed to have helped. It didn’t lower property prices and so did nothing to put houses within reach of would-be owner-occupiers. Was the long-term aim to concentrate rental housing in the hands of large, corporate landlords who can better absorb the new costs?
The only sustainable way to deliver lower rents across a broad spectrum is to make it easier and cheaper for landlords to bring rental accommodation to the market. If the Conservatives want a housing policy to tide them over until they can take up the challenge of mass building, they should start there.