A round of applause for ending “the fetishisation of the Green Belt”! Not so long ago, it would have been unimagineable for an audience of Conservative activists to approve such a sentiment.
NIMBYism – Not In My Back Yard, a term popularised by the late, great Nicholas Ridley in the 1980s – until recently held sway.
Nor is it by any means extinct. Cllr Michael Evans, from Bath and North-East Somerset, said “BANANAs” – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anywhere – best characterises the state of opinion in his district.
Anne Ashworth, a member of the panel at this ConHome fringe and editor of the Bricks and Mortar section of The Times, who had already called for an end to “the fetishisation of the Green Belt, proposed the introduction of SLIMBYism – Something Logical In My Back Yard.
She claimed credit for introducing the term “the Bank of Mum and Dad” to the housing debate by way of a headline, so perhaps this latest coinage will catch on too.
But whether or not it does, another member of the panel, Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said that unless there has been “a huge step change” in the provision of housing by the time of the next general election, “you’d better get ready to welcome Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street”.
Javid remarked that the average house price is now eight times average earnings, and in London close to 15 times average earnings: “How far out of reach for people it feels.”
A member of the audience asked if the answer was to abolish the Town and Country Planning Act, passed by Labour in 1947.
When Javid said he had “a little announcement” to make, some of the more excitable among us wondered if he was about to sweep away that cornerstone of the post-war planning system.
But he instead announced, more modestly, that the Government will provide £2.5 million more in “capacity funding” for nine “garden towns” which could eventually provide 140,000 new homes.
This fringe meeting in the ConservativeHome Marquee – the site has yet to erect new buildings in the cities where the party conference is held – was held in partnership with Shelter and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Toby Lloyd, of Shelter, pointed out that for 40 years we have not been building enough houses, even though “building houses should really not be that hard”.
He whetted our appetite by showing pictures of Bath, Edinburgh, a couple of Peabody estates and Letchworth Garden City: “They were all building quality affordable homes supported by infrastructure.”
Lloyd said we now have “a speculative model” of development which doesn’t meet the public interest.
Tom Fyans, Director of Campaigns and Policy at CPRE, lamented that with only eight per cent of rural housing affordable, the countryside is not thriving but dying. And when local people draw up neighbourhood plans, “It’s hard to get communities to believe they won’t be overruled.”
But there was general recognition at this meeting that we will only get affordable housing if as Javid said, we build a lot more of it. The political question is whether – as happened under Harold Macmillan’s direction after the 1951 election – that is going to happen anything like fast enough to make an appreciable difference at the next election.