June 23, 2021

The Labour Party is supposed to believe in building homes. In 2019, they promised a million new council homes within a decade. Yet suddenly they’re courting the nimby vote. After watching the Lib Dems win the Chesham and Amersham by-election — supporting new development while also opposing it  — it seems Labour wants a piece of the Blue Wall too. 

Yes, it’s nakedly opportunistic, but it should worry Conservative MPs. After C & A, there are very few seats in the leafy South that can be viewed as absolutely safe. Generation Rent wasn’t voting Tory anyway, and now they’ve been joined by older, home-owning opponents of new development.

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Of course, there’s always an excuse for opposing a particular housing development while claiming to support new housing in general. For ‘progressive’ nimbies, a favourite excuse is that not enough of the new homes are affordable — which tends to be the way of things in short supply.

Still, the rankness of Labour and Lib Dem hypocrisy doesn’t matter. The Tories are in power and therefore they’ll cop the blame. Indeed, it’s about to get a whole worse for them because there’s a housing and planning bill due in the Autumn.

We’ve already had a taste of just how controversial this is going to be. The key proposals were floated in a white paper last year, which became the subject of a Commons debate last October. One-by-one, MPs lined up to attack the government position — and, ominously, almost all of them were Tories.  

The Isle of Wight MP, Bob Seely led the charge, but he was joined by more than 30 colleagues including Jeremy Hunt, Damian Green, Chris Grayling, Karen Bradley and the former Prime Minister, Theresa May. Shocked by the scale of the unrest, the Government dropped the most controversial proposal — a literally brainless scheme to allocate housing targets by algorithm.

However, the centre piece of forthcoming bill is still very much in place. The idea is to gut the existing planning system and replace it with American-style “zoning”. Local authorities would be forced to divide up their communities between three types of zone: “protected”, “renewal” and “growth”. In the growth zones, outline planning permission would be granted automatically to qualifying developments and the rights of local people to object drastically curtailed. 

It’s pure political poison. Every “growth zone” in the country would be seen as a building site in waiting — and every one of them surrounded by angry, disenfranchised residents. So all the ingredients are in place for a major backbench rebellion: dozens of anxious MPs; a choice of high profile potential leaders — including Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt; an opportunistic opposition; a pitifully weak Secretary of State (Robert Jenrick); and, worst of all, a truly terrible set of policies that deserve to be torn to shreds anyway. 

William Hague has argued that planning reform could be Boris Johnson’s Poll Tax. It’s a lot worse than that. The Poll Tax was an unforced error. And once Margaret Thatcher was out of the way, it was easy to reverse ferret. On planning reform, however, Boris Johnson is in a much tighter spot. 

The need for better, more affordable housing is pressing. Excluded from the property-owning democracy, an entire generation has turned against the Tories. Boris could scrap the planning reforms — and leave the generational Götterdämmerung to the next Conservative leader. However, he can’t duck the urgent task of reviving the post-Covid economy. If there’s no recovery in house building, they’ll be no recovery at all. Building back better isn’t just a figure of speech.

That, however, brings us back to the nimbies. Now that they’ve got the Blue Wall in their sights, what’s to stop them dismantling it brick by brick? 

The Government’s solution is beauty. Ministers believe they can win people over to development if the architecture is pleasing to the eye. However, the politicians are forgetting something, which is that people can look out of their windows. They can see what is being built in their neighbourhoods and most of it is far from beautiful. 

This screenshot — which comes via the indispensable and aptly-named Shit Planning Twitter account. It shows the hapless Jenrick standing in front of a new estate in Mansfield. It is soul-destroyingly bland. Boring box-like houses are surrounded by an ocean of tarmac. If this is “affordable housing”, then that’s no excuse. Beauty should be a right, not a luxury. 

The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission does wonderful work, but it’s not translating to the ground. By-and-large developers are not “creating streets”, they are sticking up blocks inspired by the screw you school of architecture. Still, let’s not be naive. We could build Rivendell and half the nimbies still wouldn’t be satisfied. So perhaps the Tories should defy them instead. With a majority of 80, they could afford to lose some seats down South, especially if there are more to be gained up North. 

But the trouble is, the reforms would do nothing to make housing any more affordable. The only way that houses get cheaper is if supply rises relative to demand. It therefore matters who controls the supply and demand.

On the supply side, it’s not just the planners, but the big developers. After all, they’re the ones who sell new houses into housing market. Unfortunately, they’ve got no reason to increase supply to the point at which house prices stabilise or fall — and so, obviously, they won’t. As for demand, that isn’t just controlled by aspiring home owners, but also by property speculators — which these days don’t just include the amateur buy-to-let market but major private equity firms. These people also have no interest in letting house prices fall. 

So, bugger the nimbies. They may have a big influence on the politics, but they don’t control the economics. Planning reform, therefore, is largely irrelevant. A very different plan of action is required.

Firstly, the law should be used to exclude speculators from the housing market. We plan the location of new housing for environmental reasons and we should plan the ownership of new housing for social reasons. Most new houses should be reserved for first-time buyers and movers.

Free marketers might complain that this is distributism not capitalism. But so what? For a conservative, spreading home ownership should come before the purity of the market place.

On the supply side, government needs to break the big developers’ stranglehold on the land supply. It can do this by purchasing and preparing sites itself. A time-limited right to fully develop and sell-on plots could then be auctioned-off. Builders would thus be able to obtain the sites they need for houses they actually intend to build, but they’d have no need — nor the perverse incentive — to hold on to more land than that. 

This still leaves the political problem. Lose enough seats and your policies won’t matter because you won’t be in government. The answer is to concentrate new housing in as few, very carefully selected, locations as possible.

There’s no reason why mini-cities like Cambridge and Oxford shouldn’t become bigger cities. At the moment they’re surrounded by absurdly restrictive green belts. Stopping sprawl is a good thing, but these university towns are the size of a single London borough. Using the gentle density model of the Georgian square or the Edwardian mansion block, we can have expansion without sprawl. And what about Canterbury? It’s ridiculous that Kent, with a population of 1.5 million people, doesn’t have a single proper city. Elsewhere in Europe, a building like Canterbury Cathedral would take pride of place in a major regional centre.

Also let’s not forget that these are open-minded, Remain-voting, university towns. I’m sure that a progressive community that supports liberal immigration policies could have no objection to providing homes for a growing population. But if, for some strange reason, they do, then central government should insist. It is said that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But if you seriously displease just a select few of them, then you’ll probably get away with it.