There are very few national crises where there is a political incentive for them to be both solved and sustained – but housing, unfortunately is one. The reasons for wishing to solve the housing crisis are obvious: lack of housing supply and chronic unaffordability in London and the south east, oversupply and depressed construction activity in the North, a generation of young people locked out of the housing market, spiralling rents and mortgages claiming a disproportionate portion of household incomes and contracting consumer spending and all the damaging social and electoral consequences therein.
But providing housing can be also a deeply contentious and emotive issue, provoking complex and at times tribal feelings of rights, ownership and territory that prompt residents to react explosively when they perceive that housing, or at least the wrong kind of housing, is being imposed upon them against their will.
In seeking to minimise this upset, and fearful of being stung by the Chesham and Amersham-inspired electoral whiplash it can carry in its tail, generations of politicians have therefore shied away from providing the radical housing solutions that solving the crisis needs.
This is the Gordian knot which successive governments have not only failed to unravel, but has clung tighter with every missed housing target or rapidly replaced housing minister, (there have been eleven in the past twelve years).The stubborn endurance of the housing crisis tells its own story about the effectiveness of the government responses assembled to address it and various initiatives, such as Help to Buy and stamp duty amnesties, have come and go (or will soon go) without meaningfully denting the problem.
Since the start of the millennium, there has generally been one settled core strategy for solving the crisis, exponentially increasing the supply of new homes. But, very subtly, it seems that even this policy might be in quiet retreat.
This is just one of three key ways in which UK housing policy appears to be evolving. All of these are embedded within Michael Gove’s plucky BIDEN acronym – his belief that new housing needs to be Beautiful, be served by good Infrastructure, embrace local Democracy, enrich the Environment and enhance Neighbourhoods.
First, as previously mentioned, the Government appears to be withdrawing from headline housing targets and is focusing instead on the quality of homes being built. While Gove has not explicitly rescinded the Government’s commitment to build 300,000 homes a year, he has in recent weeks insisted that “arithmetic is important but so is beauty” and has vowed to clamp down on “developers of soulless dormitories” and prioritise “beautiful homes and communities” instead.
This, like the general BIDEN philosophy itself, is encouraging and the benefits of a more beautiful built environment are obvious. While a housing policy that targeted arithmetic as well as aesthetics would be welcome, neat Whitehall numeracy is not in itself the best measure of policy success and, sadly, no British government, not even the trailblazing housebuilders of Macmillan and Wilson during the 1950s and 60s, has ever been able to marry the twin paradigms of quality and quantity.
Moreover, even a decade ago the thought of a British secretary of state repeatedly opining about beauty would have been unthinkable, and it is a measure of the ministerial success of Policy Exchange’s Building Beautiful programme that both the concept and the ambition now slip so easily into Westminster vernacular.
The second policy evolution concerns democracy. It is now clear that government has set its ideological trajectory towards empowering local communities and encouraging residents to play a more active role in determining the future of their environments.
Nothing illustrates this more starkly than the shift in policy from the zoning designations proposed under Robert Jenrick to Street Votes, the Policy Exchange initiative that effectively enables residents to vote for their own street development plan, and which received its legislative initiation in both last week’s Queen’s Speech and Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
Street Votes by itself will not solve the housing crisis. But it will give residents a firmer stake in their community’s future, and help address the perennial public complaint that the current planning and consultation processes deny the public an adequate voice.
The third and final shift in housing policy is the most subtle of all, but could have a significant impact on the procedural workings of the housing sector in the short to medium term. Since taking office last September, Gove has shown himself to be extraordinarily interventionist when it comes to planning inquiries, certainly more so than his predecessor.
In just eight months since his appointment, Gove has called in at least four major schemes, Preston Mosque, Leeds Bradford Airport expansion, Luton Airport expansion and the Tesco Syon Lane development in west London. On top of this, he has frozen the proposed 72 Upper Ground and Marble Arch M&S store redevelopments in London pending call-in consideration and, in a stunning reversal of the expected result, found against the developer in the City of London’s notorious Tulip observation tower public inquiry.
Not all these developments are housing, but they are all intensely controversial and face fierce local opposition. These decisions show a Secretary of State willing to flex his ministerial muscles to scrutinise contentious proposals that, in many instances, contradict more traditional design principles.
Gove will not be secretary of state forever. But if he sets a precedent whereby central government more robustly intervenes to defend the interests of beauty and local democracy, then not only does this potentially empower the role of planning inspectors, but that Gordian knot may finally start to loosen.
This article was originally published in ConservativeHome