High on the list of topics guaranteed to agitate Conservative MPs is planning reform.
It is unsurprising, then, that the Government has put votes on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill on ice after 47 MPs signed an amendment designed to water down targets on local councils to build additional homes in their area.
The Tory rebels who regrouped this week are not “wicked” for defending a constituency of existing homeowners suspicious of new development. Many have imbibed the caricature of old, asset-rich property owners malignly obstructing the aspirations of the next generation, but this ignores the heterogeneity of such a group: some have struggled all their lives to purchase a house of their own; others have only just got onto the housing ladder and are threatened in the current economic context with negative equity. Their concerns about the quality of development in their area – and the effects that this would have on the value of their primary asset – are legitimate.
The rebels, however, are surely short-sighted, sacrificing the strategic for the tactical. Thoughtful conservatives have long recognised that their electoral prospects depend not just on the support of the currently propertied, but on the continual repropagation of an electorate of property owners. Since at least the interwar period, it has been argued that property ownership – and specifically homeownership – is supportive of the conservative values of responsibility, family and personal independence. Homeowners vote Conservative, and so making property-ownership more accessible is not just a moral cause but an electoral imperative. Churchill recognised this, as did Eden and Macmillan. So did Thatcher.
The truth about housing in this country is this: demand for houses has increased through population growth and credit expansion, whilst supply has conspicuously failed to keep up, increasing the scarcity value of homes and thus house prices, which have grown by around 400% since 1999. Homeownership has accordingly plummeted for young people; 67% of 25–34-year-olds owned their own home in 1991. In 2020, the figure was 41%. There is no way around the fact that, to create more homeowners, we need more homes, and with the current system, housing targets play an important role both in setting national ambitions and offering strategic direction for local authorities.
The claim that housing targets are Stalinist is an impressive instance of rhetorical redescription, but it is disingenuous, nonetheless. It is also enormously ironic. A quote will suffice to make the point: “Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by overcrowded homes… Our target remains 300,000 houses a year… In a property-owning democracy, the more people who own their homes the better”. The source? Churchill’s 1951 election manifesto. Churchill, of course, was not a renowned Stalinist.
The rebels have looked to shift the blame for the housing crisis away from the planning system and onto the idea that greedy developers are sitting on plots of land with planning permission to ensure property prices remain high – or “land banking”. It is true that there are numerous plots with planning permission that have not been built out yet, even if the one million figure is debatable. The problem with the land banking thesis is that it fails to recognise that developers are rational actors who are encouraged by our discretionary planning system to hedge against uncertainty by strategically acquiring land. The government should certainly promote more competition in the housing market, but this should not obscure the fact that it is the planning system that sets the incentive structure within which market actors make decisions.
We urgently need to make land use allocation more certain and predictable for developers so they themselves can plan more effectively. Targets and Local Plans are critical to achieving this end, as is the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Damian Green, Bob Seeley, Theresa Villiers and others warn against a reductive approach to the housing debate that demonises local authorities and local constituents. But they are guilty of the same thing as it pertains to developers.
Many of the things that the rebels want are sensible: more brownfield and infill development in urban areas; greater contractual obligations on developers to build out in good time; support for planning at the neighbourhood and street level; beautiful, well-designed new builds.
These things should be done too. Policy Exchange has long argued that improving design quality is the means by which we will secure more housebuilding and local consent for it. At the same time as increasing the obligations on developers though, local authorities need to meet their obligations to provide adequate housing to the younger generation. By imbedding reciprocity and fairness, we can rebuild trust in the planning system amongst both younger and older demographics.
When it comes to housing, the Tories risk serving the interests of one section of the British population at the expense of another. This would be a costly betrayal of its political legacy. Picking and choosing between narrow interest groups is what the left does. The Conservative Party, by contrast, is a “national party”; it seeks to unite the diverse elements of society rather than pitting them against each other. Today, the Conservative Party must be the party of “One Nation”, not two nations split along generational lines.
Failing to create new homeowners would be electorally naïve too. A generation of people left unable to purchase a home of their own would not forgive the government. Do we expect people to be conservative about an economic system that prevents them from owning capital?
The Conservative party is the party of property. But it is the party of extending property-ownership to as many people as possible – the very opposite of the socialist desire to concentrate property ownership in the hands of the state. Michael Gove must not be deterred from this fundamentally laudable mission. To paraphrase Churchill, it will not be easy, but should he succeed, “every humble home will bless his name”.