It would appear that Maria Miller, Conservative MP for Basingstoke, did not get the Prime Minister’s memo. “Still time to sign my ‘Slow It Down’ petition calling on the Borough Council to drastically reduce housing targets,” she tweeted on Friday, a mere two days after Liz Truss launched her crusade against the “anti-growth coalition” in her party conference speech.
“I have three priorities for our economy: growth, growth and growth,” Truss said, pressing her foot on the accelerator. “Our community wants this rapid growth to slow down,” said Miller, stamping on the brake. “We will make it easier to build homes,” Truss said, bearing down on the great furnace bellows of British growth. “The next local plan must cut new house-building levels in half,” Miller countered, pouring cold water on the few weak, fading embers that remain. Truss might as well have slapped on the rouge, minced onto the conference hall stage as a pantomime dame and invited the audience to proclaim “It’s behind you!” to identify members of the anti-growth coalition.
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In her speech, Truss listed opposition parties, militant unions, think tanks with vested interests, talking heads, “Brexit deniers” and environmental activists as constituent parts of the anti-growth coalition. If that’s what makes up the anti-growth coalition, all of these interests are certainly very powerful; our economic growth rate has been woeful for the last decade and a half. But one might note these groups — also the stock bogeymen of the Tory faithful — haven’t held the keys to Downing Street for the last 12 years. They certainly play a role, but it’s easy to paint a target on your political enemies. It’s far harder to paint a target on your friends and allies.
The awkward truth left unsaid is that the anti-growth coalition contains more than just members from the “the other side”. Truss failed to mention that some of its most powerful members were in that very conference hall: the Conservative activist base, voter coalition and, yes, even Tory MPs. Miller is just a timely and particularly diametric example, but a quick search will find example, after example, after example, after example, after example, after example of Tory MPs opposing growth — from houses to solar panel installations to new supermarkets — in the face of local opposition from prospective Conservative voters.
They pose in front of derelict industrial wastelands saved from “inappropriate development” with elderly, homeowning activists holding Conservative campaign signs, all grinning like Alsatians. And the Tory councillors are no better. If anything, it’s even easier to find councillor, after councillor, after councillor, after councillor proudly claiming ownership of blocking developments. The so-called talking heads from think tanks that Truss identified often ponder on panels why Britain’s growth rate has been anaemic for so long, all pensively stating “it’s a complex, multifaceted issue” relating to obscure legislative frameworks or some other skills policy minutiae.
But there’s no great mystery. We haven’t grown because we refuse to build infrastructure and housing in our most productive regions and cities, strangling the supply of workers to well-paying, productive jobs, and increasing operational costs. The nation that once produced great Victorian engineers of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s calibre has lost its nerve and taste for economic progress.
It’s easy to assume that big, dark, and powerful forces are behind our economic malaise. It’s far harder to imagine that the cause is perfectly normal, average and decent fellow countrymen and women — motivated by only good intentions — objecting to planning proposals just because they want to stop some construction dust for a few months, or prevent something as nebulous as the “character” of their local area changing. These small-c conservatives represent millions of grains of sand in the national gears of growth — and they’re courted by politicians of all flavours seeking votes at the intersection of our political incentive structures. But courted most successfully, if Truss were to look in the mirror, by the Conservative Party.
One of the great unsolved problems in politics is the natural conflict between wealth, political power and economic dynamism. Wealth building is a fundamentally good thing for society, for it provides security, stability and facilitates increases in living standards. But with growth in wealth inevitably comes political power, which is then invariably used to moat and defend the ownership of wealth, even if that means strangling off economic growth through barriers to entry, oligopolistic profits and economic rents.
These will all be quietly introduced under the well-meaning guise of protecting consumers and the environment, or ensuring product quality (protecting the “unique character of the local area”). In the housebuilding sector, only large players with an army of planning system navigators and the capital to weather cost of operation can survive. A 2016 House of Lords report concluded that the sector “has all the characteristics of an oligopoly”, because of the barriers to entry erected by the wealth and power structures of middle Britain. “It is rational for private enterprise to optimise profits rather than volume, limiting their uncertainty in a market characterised by constant Government intervention and cyclical risk,” the report added. There’s your anti-growth coalition right there, Prime Minister.
It’s not that Truss has no allies. Save for the party leader’s speech, the main stage is never where the best ideas are found at party conferences. Scrubbed of interesting content and commentary that might accidentally “commit news”, cabinet minister speeches are best avoided. The few conference events that did have a “buzz” were all on the subject of planning reform — for everything from housing to new reservoirs. Veterans of many failed campaigns, the movement for change is becoming much wiser and more targeted. It doesn’t matter how big your porcelain hammer is when you hit it against the concrete wall of reform, the thinkers now realise — the hammer will always shatter.
Key to reform — and the defeat of the real anti-growth coalition — is a complete rewiring of incentive structures. A crusade against the largest, most influential voter block in the country will never win. So instead of playing tug-of-war with them, tug the rope sideways. Buy them into reform with beautifully designed buildings, and include their often legitimate concerns from day one in consultations. And — just as Nye Bevan joked was necessary when pushing through the creation of the NHS against stiff opposition from doctors — stuff their mouths with gold.
Let them enrich themselves by voting for densification with policies such as Street Votes, giving them the value of planning uplift to their own properties. Simplify the structure of Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy — initiatives that try to get funding for schools, hospitals, roads and local amenities from new developments, but that fail through their complexity and lack of scale and ambition. Make people believe that by backing a development, they will benefit personally. And for heaven’s sake, follow through with that promise. Yes, it’s offensive to offer these privileged, wealthy people even more carrots — but it will be worth it for the transformative benefits of structural reform.
Finally, realise that some incentive structures are already there for you to exploit. The Secretary of State could get building started in Labour-dominated cities tomorrow. There would be no primary or secondary legislation requirements. All the powers to do this exist today. If the Conservative Party is worried about losing the city suburbs — and it should be — one way to slow the tide of Labour-inclined, priced-out city-dwelling families into the suburbs is to enable them to live in Labour-held, city constituencies by building more.
Going up against the anti-growth coalition will be “difficult, but it is necessary”, Truss said. “We cannot give in to the voices of decline. We cannot give in to those who say Britain can’t grow faster. We cannot give in to those who say we can’t do better.” The only problem is, she was saying it to everyone else, not her own party.
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