The Conservative Party may currently be in its electoral pomp, but it has a big structural problem: the long-term and short-term interests of much of its coalition are badly misaligned on one of the biggest issues facing the nation. Housing.
In the long run, more and cheaper housing means more Conservative voters. This is because it allows people to acquire assets and a degree of personal security – i.e. something worth conserving.
It also makes it more affordable to settle down and start a family, which some writers have argued is one of the most significant factors that helps push voters rightwards. He suggested in 2008 that a successful conservative party should “position itself as the party of more weddings and more babies”, whilst casting the opposition, “with some accuracy, as the party of dying alone.”
We may perhaps have already seen this in action. The Economist first published the ‘Barratt Box’ theory of the Red Wall, which posits that the Tories broke through across the North not because of some new cultural link to windswept town centres but because affordable housing has simply allowed the processes which traditionally turn out Tory voters to take their course.
But in the short run, more and cheaper housing scares off existing Conservative voters, sitting on fabulous property wealth in leafy parts of the country and quite prepared to defect to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens (or indeed the alphabet soup of localists and residents associations) if either looks more likely to ‘Keep X Special’. When I recently looked at the danger of cracks in the ‘Blue Wall’, anger at development was the issue that very often explained local Tory setbacks, including in the Hertfordshire town where I grew up.
This is the context in which the battle over the Government’s planning policy is taking place.
Anyone familiar with the history of Conservative efforts to undo the huge damage wrought by the Attlee Government’s awful planning reforms are likely to be pessimistic. John Myers, of London YIMBY, wrote for us recently about how effectively Tory backbenchers have seen off Robert Jenrick’s various predecessors. Sam Bowman fears that they have already defanged this latest effort by scaring ministers away from ‘street votes’, a proposal to stuff homeowners’ mouths with gold I wrote about previously.
Some of the arguments advanced by the Conservative rearguard have indeed been breathtakingly disengenous. Whilst there was a fair point to be made about the previous algorithm not assigning enough new houses to (Labour-held) urban areas, it is nonsense to suggest that building in the South is a betrayal of ‘levelling up’.
Whatever economic interventions the North needs to succeed, mass housebuilding isn’t it. Homes there are already for the most part very affordable. As I said before, it’s an odd definition of ‘levelling up’ that pushes the Party’s new voters into negative equity to give Theresa Villiers a five-year lease on Chipping Barnet.
In fact, some argue that more affordable housing in the South means less disposable income being consumed by banks and landlords, leaving more to spend on goods and services and thus expanding the market that northern businesses can sell into.
(It is a sign of how divorced from reality the arguments against housebuilding have got that a recent Times report stated that: “the government’s formula assumes that more homes are needed where prices are higher.” It is remarkable that this would need stating.)
But others in the housing policy space are less pessimistic. First, because even without Street Votes (an extremely experimental policy) they think that zoning for growth on its own could be a significant win, especially if policy “draws inspiration from the idea of design codes and pattern books that built Bath, Belgravia and Bournville”, as Jenrick wrote last year.
Moreover, Boris Johnson’s victory in the Red Wall doesn’t just illustrate the dividends of affordable housing – it may also create more political space to deliver it. A large majority, secured outside the Conservatives’ traditional map, gives the Government more wriggle-room both to face down the shire rearguard and indeed to weather the loss of some of those seats for a cycle or two, before the NIMBY backlash is overcome by the influx of grateful new homeowners (being personally handed their keys by the Housing Secretary, ideally).
None of this guarantees success. Ministers could and should do much more to drive building in Sadiq Khan’s London, both to try and salvage the Party’s position in the capital and to prevent spillover doing to more commuter seats what it has already done to Brighton and Canterbury. The Prime Minister may feel the short-term cost of people being angry at him is not worth a long-term benefit the Party – not to mention several generations of younger voters – will probably only enjoy after he has left office.
For all that, however, it does appear that the Government at least grasps the seriousness of the issue and is prepared to try and do something about it. And that’s a good start.