After a decade of Conservative governments actively worsening Britain’s multiple housing crises, this one finally has a plan to get England’s housebuilders building.
There’s one problem – many Tories hate it. And if they don’t now, they will soon.
The government’s proposed new planning system, unveiled last month, is designed to get more than 300,000 homes built every year. Not only will Westminster be issuing mandatory housebuilding targets to councils, but because the plans focus on new housing in areas of peak demand, the impact will be greatest in London and the south-east, according to the planning consultancy Lichfields.
Many of those areas have Tory councils and Tory MPs. A report in the Times last week reflected growing backbench disquiet among Conservatives who might find local objections to large-scale housebuilding overridden by the new government targets.
Often from low-turnout demographics and sometimes located in safe Labour seats, their votes are less critical
“Councillors are kicking off. MPs are going to do the same. It’s in London, it’s in the shires,” the Times quoted one Tory MP. “I think a hell of a lot of people haven’t read a lot about it but it’s going to morph into something bigger when they do.”
The government has at least made up its mind – it will back housing developers over local opposition, even when that opposition consists of Conservative members and voters. But fears of untrammelled housebuilding everywhere outside the green belt are bound to provoke staunch resistance. A major parliamentary battle looms.
The reason housing policy is so fraught is because it is a crucible of competing rights and interests that exist at different levels of democracy. National government, local government, neighbourhoods and individuals all have strong and often conflicting views on how much housing should be built, on what terms and where.
The result is a mess. National government is primarily concerned with swing voters in marginals – and, critics argue, large property developers. Local communities often want to preserve their own neighbourhoods or avoid pressure on local amenities, and this aversion to housebuilding inevitably influences what councils do – or how fast they can do it. Individuals want somewhere affordable and decent to live, but are rarely able to pressure politicians to deliver.
Housing is where pure localism fails. Different localities may simply slam the door on newcomers, depending on the attitude of local politicians and voters. Solving the housing crisis becomes someone else’s job.
The government wants to override this by using planning reforms to sledgehammer councils into building more homes. It is this that is sparking concerns on Conservative benches.
The problem is that the plans do little to promote genuinely affordable housing. The current system is dysfunctional, but the new proposals risk making things worse by giving councils the choice of whether to spend financial contributions from housing developers on affordable housing, local infrastructure or potentially even council tax cuts. Tax cuts benefit more existing residents than affordable housebuilding does – and only an optimist would rule out the former trumping the latter in local decision-making.
In this way, the plans centralise decisions over how much housing is built, but localise decisions over whether any of it will be affordable. The main beneficiaries – as with help to buy and right to buy – will be those on the edge of homeownership, mainly on middle incomes and potentially swing voters.
The losers would be those with the least wealth, stuck in unaffordable or squalid housing. Often from low-turnout demographics and sometimes located in safe Labour seats, their votes are less critical to governments of either party.
All this reveals a gaping hole in the broader devolution debate – the assumption that the preferences of local majorities are the same as those of poorer individuals.
Some argue that locally made decisions are good simply because they are local. This is fundamentalist nonsense. For those who seek greater social justice, equality and poverty reduction, the task is to identify a framework of powers to rest at national, local and individual level that can best achieve those aims.
Sometimes that will require strong central government, other times devolution and local veto powers, and in many cases it will need individual socioeconomic rights – of which there is generally little mention in political debate. Different policy areas require different responses.
England needs more houses, more social infrastructure and more genuinely affordable places to live – especially council housing. The government has identified the interests of prospective homebuyers – and property developers – as aligned with its own, and intends to bulldoze past local opponents to get England building.
But those trapped in the sink of the housing market may find that neither national politicians nor local voters have their interests at heart.
• Chaminda Jayanetti is a journalist who covers politics and public services