Housing policy is a ritual dance. First, there is a wave of anxiety about much lower levels of home ownership; anger about the plight of a generation of Have Nots.
Next, government, mindful of the economic as well as the social implications, resolves to do something. If it’s a Conservative Government, this resolve is stiffened by the political implications for the party of capitalism if younger people have no stake in the system.
Doing something takes the form of a plan whose main feature is a liberalisation of planning. Next, the Haves rise up in revolt, and with them their elected representatives: Conservative MPs and councillors.
Finally, the proposals are watered down – and Ministers declare victory in the face of defeat. Then there is a lull before the dance begins again.
The cynical view is that this cycle is inevitable in a country with limited space, smaller families, high immigration, powerful developers, a long tradition of property rights, a complex planning system, curtailed post-crash lending and new Net Zero requirements.
Furthermore, it holds that housing problems are mainly confined to the Greater South-East, so commanding inordinate attention from the political and media class, which is largely based there…
…And that the fixation with home ownership is disproportionate, given the importance of social housing, fire safety, the rented sector and homelessness.
To all of which there are answers: namely, that housing problems in one part of the country have consequences for the rest of it; that most people want to own their own homes, and that critics of home ownership sometimes, if not often, actually do.
Furthermore, government doesn’t always lose. In 2019/20, 243,770 homes were delivered – the highest annual number in over 30 years, and the seventh year in a row that the number of homes delivered has risen.
One of the drivers of these increases has been the National Planning Policy Framework – steered through by Greg Clark, against the usual background of protest, and described by his successor, Nick Boles, as a “gradual, gentle liberalisation”.
There are other options for the Government than a further liberalisation of planning laws for greenfield sites: concentrating instead on brownfield; severely curtailing immigration; punting building up north and, above all, reducing land banking.
All of these are part of the solution, especially a migration reduction, but none are the whole of it: land banking, for example, is partly a consequence of developers seeking to release a steady flow of homes and get a return on their investment.
When push comes to shove, people want to live in family homes that they own reasonably near to where they work. If this aspiration is to be realised, that means more of them in the Greater South-East.
Essentially, there are two ideas about how to provide them. The first is the majority view: there’s a shortage of homes, so more must be built.
The second is held by a minority: there’s no shortage at all and that, if home ownership is your beau ideal, the fall has been driven by a slowdown in mortgage lending to first time buyers, and the solution is more fiscal intervention that will help them.
At any rate, the Government has put its eggs in the first basket, and its solution is more planning liberalisation. We are now near the final stage of the dance.
“One wheel on my wagon,” the song goes, “and I’m still rolling along.” For the New Christy Minstrels, read Robert Jenrick and Chris Pincher, the Planning Minister.
Zang! There in the Conservative Manifesto goes any prospect of loosening Green Belt restrictions. Ping! There go the Cherokees, in the form of our former columnist, Neil O’Brien, who wrote the piece on this site that did for the housing algorithm.
The remaining wheel is zoning: dividing land into Growth, Protected and (perhaps) Renewal areas. In the last and first especially, there will be a faster route to new housing – achieved, according to the Royal Town Planning Institute, by “sweeping away the planning system”.
The usual means of trying to win local consent for new building are collective benefits: new schools, GP surgeries, better rail, sports facilities, and so on. Policy Exchange pushes Building Beautiful – creating new homes that present residents would actually welcome.
Sometimes this appeases local objections but more often it doesn’t, with protesters arguing that the Treasury isn’t willing to fund enough palpable gain for their area (and for themselves).
On this site yesterday, Bob Blackman floated another Policy Exchange solution whose benefits are more concentrated: street plans, whereby “individual streets, when a large majority of homeowners agree, give themselves permission to increase the size of their houses”.
“In many areas the value uplift, after building costs, could be several hundred thousand pounds for every homeowner on the street.” But all these plans to win more consent run into a problem.
You do not have to agree with those who stress the role of mortgage lending in our housing problems to believe that they have a point about the scale of housebuilding necessary to make homes more affordable. Even with a big uptick in local consent.
“Even building 300,000 houses per year in England would only cut house prices by something in the order of 10 per cent over the course of 20 years,” writes Ian Mulheirn. “This is an order of magnitude smaller than the price rises of recent decades.”
In any event, the remaining wheel on Jenrick’s wagon is under remorseless fire. Even before Chesham and Amersham, it was unlikely that zoning would make it through the Commons.
As we learned in the by-election, the Liberal Democrats will give it no help. Nor will Labour – not so long ago the party of regional plans and central targets.
And that’s before we get to those Cherokee, sorry, Conservative backbenchers, Theresa May and all. Faced with all this, Pincher might as well have got up in the Commons this week and sung ‘”higgity, haggity hoggety, high”. (Indeed, that’s what he did, more or less.)
To which he and Jenrick might well respond: what would you do, then? It’s a fair question. We aren’t slow on this site to mourn the absence of a clear Government growth plan, or to highlight the cynicism of Net Zero, or lament the lack of real local devolution.
So we acknowledge that Boris Johnson’s quest to get home ownership back up is a noble one – and that housing is one policy area in which one cannot complain of a lack of Ministerial ambition and bold thinking.
We opened with cynicism and close with idealism, because a bit of it is in order. The garden city movement of the late nineteenth century created Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, amidst an upswell of hope in people living happier lives.
In the ConservativeHome Manifesto seven years ago, we proposed new Garden City Corporations – each covering a specific area and headed by a mayor elected by the local residents, building on the model pioneered by the London Docklands Development Corporation.
If we have run up against the limits of building a little in a lot of places, why not have a good long look at building a lot in fewer places? New garden cities might catch the Prime Minister’s imagination and love of grands projets.
Sure, there are objections. But so there are, as we have seen, to other options, too. Building more homes won’t solve the mortgage lending problem or bring house prices down. Nonetheless, it will do a bit of good – the best of which politics is usually capable.