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Boris must smash the Grey Wall

Credit: Getty

October 11, 2021 - 3:00pm

A spectre is haunting Britain: the spectre of Baby Boomers. Beneficiaries of the post-war reconstruction boom, the most prosperous era of modern capitalism, and of free education and cheap housing to advance their social mobility, the baby boom generation has a stranglehold over Conservative policy. Not only is this generation hampering growth and widening social inequality, it is also driving young people towards increasingly deranged forms of activism, threatening the country’s future.

The government needs to change this, fast, not just because it’s right and just but also because it’s eroding any possibility of a Tory support base once the boomers die off. To have any viable future, the Conservatives need to build decent and affordable houses for young people now, where they’re needed, whatever the boomers think.

But this isn’t happening. Instead, spooked by its by-election loss, the government has surrendered to the wealth-hoarding demands of its ageing southeastern power base, with Boris promising at the party conference to assuage their “constant anxiety that your immemorial view of chalk downland is going to be desecrated by ugly new homes,” shrugging off his responsibility to provide housing in the areas where demand is greatest.

This isn’t good enough. Creating future jobs and spreading prosperity across the North is a noble and necessary goal, but it shouldn’t be an excuse to abandon young people in the South-East now, forcing them to cram themselves into squalid and ruinously expensive private rental accommodation, and preventing them from setting up home, saving up, and forming families.

A combination of unduly restrictive postwar planning legislation and Boomer greed is strangling Britain’s natural growth. And Tory MPs are at the forefront of making the housing crisis worse, with Theresa Villiers proclaiming that “we also need housing targets reduced in the South to stem the flood of high-rise, high-density development, which is creating immense pressure in commuter areas”. Backbench MP Bob Seely is demanding that councils withdraw permission for 200,000 homes that have already been green-lit. For short-term advantage, the government is crippling its own future, and that of the country as a whole.

Well-meaning but paltry initiatives like Policy Exchange’s Street Votes scheme, which relies on a dubious mixture of homeowner self-interest and cooperation to succeed, are a welcome start but nowhere near addressing the scale of housebuilding needed to fix the crisis. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure that the British people are adequately housed, and Boris should adopt the radical vision of his paternalist Tory predecessor Harold Macmillan in doing so.

The 1951 Conservative manifesto declared, in a passage as true today as it was then, that:

“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 crowded houses. Therefore, a Conservative and Unionist Government will give housing a priority second only to national defence.”
- Conservative Manifesto (1951)

Tasked with delivering this, then-Chancellor Macmillan pronounced that building 300,000 homes a year was “a war job” to be tackled “in the spirit of 1940,” an ambitious goal he succeeded in, helping a secure a Tory majority in the 1955 election. Boris needs to do the same, whatever the Boomers wail. When even Prince Charles’ green and impeccably tasteful housebuilding efforts on his own land are met with howls of outrage by local boomers, it becomes clear that our suburban pensioner overlords are a stumbling block to national prosperity that the government needs to quash.

Southeastern England needs beautiful, spacious, affordable new homes, with all the transport, medical and educational infrastructure to finally provide millennials now entering middle age with a decent quality of life. He’s won the Red Wall handsomely: but to secure his legacy, Boris needs to finally smash Britain’s growth-sapping Grey Wall.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

“Southeastern England needs beautiful, spacious, affordable new homes, with all the transport, medical and educational infrastructure to finally provide millennials now entering middle age with a decent quality of life.”
Sounds great – but then so does the idea of Unicorns frolicking on the sunlit uplands of everlasting prosperity, and about as likely to happen.
You suggest that “For short-term advantage, the government is crippling its own future, and that of the country as a whole.” – yet it is you that is calling for ever more building in the South East. Do you really think that is sustainable, or achievable – or, in the long term, even desirable?
If you want longer term and sustainable solutions, would it not perhaps be rather more advantageous to regenerate parts of the country where housing is plentiful and affordable and encourage businesses and workforce to locate themselves there, rather than the insistence that we just keep developing the SE of England with all the obvious ramifications for infrastructure and quality of life?
Dare i say it, but it is your plan that seems more likely to cripple the future of the country for short-term advantage, than the government’s.
Maybe those with the greatest experience, who you scorn as the Grey Wall, have actually got a point.

Last edited 2 years ago by Paddy Taylor
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

This shows a quite extraordinary faith in governments’ ability to ‘regenerate’ and direct investment! This is hardly a new concept.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

Solve the housing crisis in 4 steps:

1 – build new homes anywhere apart from the South East of England. Don’t build on the Green Belt.
2 – encourage remote working as the norm (including 5G roll out and rural broadband)
3 – reduce immigration, incentivise automation and capital investment
4 – allow commercial property in London to be converted to residential

Young, white-collar workers will rent in London while they get experience and then move away from London and the Home Counties to raise a family and work from home. They already do this – now let’s take advantage of these remote working technologies and supercharge it! ÂŁ250k is the average price of a family home outside the south east. In outer London you would be lucky to get a studio flat.

Not only does it give young couples the chance to buy a home suitable for raising a family but it also brings managerial and professional people into the provincial towns where they will spread their wealth in hundreds of ways.

Over time some of the redundant offices of London can be turned into flats bringing the prices down for those who need to live in London.

Do this in tandem with keeping low-wage immigration low – so bringing blue-collar pay closer to office workers.

Housing crisis solved. Country Levelled Up.

Sit back and take the credit.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
David Harris
David Harris
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

How can bus drivers WFH? Or shop workers? Or nurses? Jeez.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  David Harris

They are not white-collar workers. Jeez!

My point is that people who work at desks (white-collar) can work remotely so they can live anywhere in the country. They will move to areas where they can afford a good sized house not a tiny flat. This isn’t speculation – half of my team has moved out of London during the pandemic – to Lancashire, Newcastle, Norfolk and Wales among other places. I don’t think we will ever go back to offices. And so we should do what we can to supercharge this trend (“super fast broadband” etc).

It doesn’t do much for the “blue-collar” workers that you mention (except in London where it will reduce some of the competition for rentals – as will controlling immigration levels).

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

and AI will replace half of you keyboard home workers in a decade, if offshoring does not do it first.

The Office – that was the KEY of the West’s economic dominance. The highest pay comes from office work – and with the requirement of ‘Work Visas’ preventing all the super sharp and very hungry, Developing World workers out of the UK work force; you office workers had it made, and so the money stayed in UK. Like working in a closed union shop – you did not have to live according to international pay scales.

Work from home has killed that golden goose as they can now work from their home in Deli or Shanghai and do what ever it is your sort do.

David FĂŒlöp
David FĂŒlöp
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

In reality most of the jobs that could be outsourced have long been gone.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

You think. It will increasingly be professional jobs.

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago

That was just the first wave such as customer support. The next wave will be a tidal wave and take in a far broader spectrum of jobs. It is already starting to happen.

Karl Schuldes
Karl Schuldes
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

So when no one has a job who’s going to buy the stuff businesses are producing?

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

It will be interesting to see how it plays out and scary if you are right (I hope and believe you are not). But either way the horse has bolted – the days of the office are over in my opinion.

People hire people because of language, culture, proximity in time zone and location, education and skills. Locals win out on all these dimensions. They also hire for cost and of course low-wage countries win out there. But most of all they hire people because of personal recommendations, contacts and networks. And this is why I believe there will always be enough work for people in Britain.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

We ARE going back to working in offices, and the governments policy is for that to happen!!

George Wells
George Wells
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Matt M – yes, you are right, it obvious. There’s plainly no intention to solve the housing crisis. I would add punitive taxation on housing which is not lived in by the owners, particularly when the owners are foreign. Our housing is used for capital flight from all over the world to the benefit of estate agents and the detriment of almost everyone else. (There are wrinkles around retirees who have bought a house instead of a pension). Yes, this would destroy the buy-to-let market – but these properties won’t disappear, they will just get cheaper. So rents will fall.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

“A combination of unduly restrictive postwar planning legislation and Boomer greed is strangling Britain’s natural growth.”

Or as seen from this Boomer: A combination of lazy, shiftless, entitled, money squandering, casually ‘partnered’, saddled with useless University degrees; middle aged and young people can never do for themselves what the hard working, realist, money saving Boomers did.

“Chancellor Macmillan pronounced that building 300,000 homes a year was “a war job” to tackled “in the spirit of 1940,””

And then those Boomers who came from those basic homes apprenticed as brick masons, carpenters, electricians, factory workers – and built vast numbers of more houses. And you soft lot, who would never do such work, think someone has to be brought in and build them for you.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

To be fair it was the boomers who massively scaled back apprenticeships that they themselves enjoyed to get a start in life.
On the job training has largely disappeared, as has free further education which many jobs that used to be entry level now require. You sold the council houses to yourselves for cheap and pocketed the money rather than replacing them. You’ve saved nothing towards the pensions (which you inflated massively once you started coming up to retirement with the triple lock) or end of life care you’ll require, choosing instead to put the burden onto the generations that followed.
Can you name one unselfish policy your generation put in place that would cost you money but help the following generations?

David Harris
David Harris
2 years ago

No mention that the pressure for more house building comes from the exact thing baby boomers are trying to reduce – immigration. Which is the same thing the younger generations seem to want more of!

Snake Oil Cat
Snake Oil Cat
2 years ago
Reply to  David Harris

Younger generations want the freedom to move out of the UK. Which is what Boris has taken away.

David George
David George
2 years ago
Reply to  Snake Oil Cat

I hadn’t heard of that, is that new or perhaps connected with the UK leaving the EU. There’s lot’s of young Brits here in New Zealand and in Australia, Canada etc. Snake oil.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  David George

Don’t worry David. Despite no one having done it in 40 years and no one in Britain speaking a European language, suddenly there are loads of people that were just itching to move to Bulgaria but were stopped by Brexit!

For the entirety of our time in the EEC/EU the most popular destinations for Brits were: Oz, US, Canada, NZ, Spain and Ireland. Only one – Spain – has become harder to move to since we left. One – Australia- has become easier. Others, no change so far (though I expect Canada and NZ to do something similar to Oz).

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago
Reply to  Snake Oil Cat

Boo hoo hoo. Is nobody letting you move away?

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Snake Oil Cat

If they don’t have the gumption to leave the U.K then sod ’em. There are far more promising, dynamic parts of the world than the sclerotic EU has-been countries.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Bell
D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago

In the UK we grow half the food we need, and import the other half. If we build on greenfield sites for new households we simultaneously reduce the land area for crops and add to the population who want to buy food.
It suits well the business interests who see profit in selling houses, food, energy, cars, and everything else to a rising population. It simply isn’t sustainable for much longer. Now that so much of our infrastructure, businesses and property are foreign-owned, what else can we sell? How do we pay for imported food? Borrow money? Print it?
Population growth has to stop.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

‘Sustainable’ – the new almost meaningless buzz word of both Left and Right! Human beings haven’t lived ‘sustainably’ since the Paleolithic era!

Autarky has always proved a disastrous policy, living standards across the world have hugely risen due to capitalism, and population IS falling in a number of advanced countries, and population growth almost everywhere. Which of course doesn’t stop various commentators on here lamenting THAT! – Doom, doom, doom, you just can’t win!

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Here is UK population growth;
https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/united-kingdom-population
When Blair came to power in 1997 we were 58.3 million. Now we are 10 million more. The rate of increase is steep.

Last edited 2 years ago by D Glover
Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
2 years ago

The author doesnt seem to realise that we Baby Boomers failed to stop the Government from desicrating our Chalk hills and poisoning the underground aquifers that feed drinking water to many thousands of homes.

When protesting against it, we just get called NIMBYs and ignored.

Lou Campbell
Lou Campbell
2 years ago

“is also driving young people towards increasingly deranged forms of activism, threatening the country’s future.”
Talk about blaming ‘boomers’ for everything!
This article is a biased joke. And no I’m not a boomer

Hilary Arundale
Hilary Arundale
2 years ago

The writer says demand for affordable housing is greatest in London (I followed the link). London is one of the world’s prime locations for foreign investors and money laundering. Consequently it’s full of empty properties. Blaming boomers in the shires for property speculation in London is daft.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

The UK also needs to learn the concept of apartment living. The traditional “my home is my castle” culture, with squat little houses spreading out like a carpet all across the land is going to mean even more incursions into sacred green space. Time to build UP, and stop considering tower blocks as an inferior mode of living.

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

So you haven’t experienced rush hour in a dodgy elevator shaft then. Or drunken aggression. Or Social Distancing.

What you don’t want is your whole life depending on a single point of failure. Remember that the Grenfell evacuation problems arose in large part because the Fire Service wanted to avoid panic in the elevator shafts.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

Rather than wait 6 months for fitters I put a new bathroom in and updated the kitchen this year. I imagine it will be the last time. My next door neighbour (35) told me he could never do that. I said nor could I when I was 35 but I was divorced and hard up so I got books from the library. Now he’s got Youtube.
The only way to increase the housing stock is to enforce it and control prices and greedy builders. Macmillan didn’t ask the 65+ for permission. Not replacing the sold off council housing has caused this.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Although I agree with many of the sentiments, in a democratic society with party politics, usually very short term in nature, it is probably pretty naive to expect the government to eviscerate its own voting base.

However this issue really gets to the pain spot of so many of our UnHerd commentators, who suddenly discover the merits of government dictating where investment should go, in order, what, to preserve people’s views? ‘Traffic’ is bad, but everyone else causes traffic, never oneself.

The immigration argument is also a red herring. We’ve had Brexit, can’t change the past, and migration is now under democratic control. Our society has to consider how well, if at all, it meets housing demand, from wherever it comes. If not, then the least of our problems will be the loss of power of the Tories. In my view this could happen much faster than anyone now realises, political realignments can now happen very quickly, whatever the arguments about cervices may be. But more importantly, a society which almost worships ever rising housing costs enormously above inflation, even in previously very unfashionable areas, has completely lost its way on a fundamental issue. There are now no reasonably priced areas at all in London. Other countries manage much better, and despite immigration.

G A
G A
2 years ago

Agreed 100%. Voters choose conservatives when they have a stake in society. Our housing policy means very few people have any such stake.
It makes sense in that politicians are only loyal to power. They don’t do these jobs for the betterment of us.

G A
G A
2 years ago
Reply to  G A

Very few = In a specific age and salary range, I should clarify.

David Harris
David Harris
2 years ago

The 1951 Conservative manifesto declared, that:
“Housing is the first of the social services… ”
But in 1951 it was for Brits to live in: we didn’t have 300,000 a year net migration to house as well.

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago

“… but it shouldn’t be an excuse to abandon young people in the South-East now, forcing them to cram themselves into squalid and ruinously expensive private rental accommodation, and preventing them from setting up home, saving up, and forming families.”

If the UK govt really did level things up the South East wouldn’t be full of ‘Northerners’ leaving the north to seek work.

The reality is a massively disproportionate amount has be thrown at London (in particular) and the south east ever since the early 1980s when I moved from the north to London.

But hey, our great leader seems to have bought into ‘The Great Reset’ and is Building Back Better, so come 2030 the lucky millenials will own nothing, but be crazily happy.

Last edited 2 years ago by Paul Smithson
Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 years ago

I am always intrigued by the twin shibboleths that *old people (ie Baby Boomers) are the selfish lucky generation who didn’t have to fight in the war and never had it so good-and are now too selfish to even give a bit of it to their (our) own children*…and that the seventies and eighties were dismal times of 3 day weeks, power cut off, bodies unburied etc etc let alone terrible cancer recovery rates, no internet at all (OMG!!) and so on, and *a return to those days* is the horror of all horrors on the lips of every tub thumping politician.

Either our lives were fantastic or they weren’t but they can’t be both.

The serious point is (in my opinion only) Labour lost the class war under Thatcher, a fact confirmed by Blair/Brown and they have been trying to create other wars to try and win ever since…race, sexual orientation, culture and generational wars may come to be seen as the skirmishes in a war that eventually destroyed Labour; ironically skirmishes they started because they couldn’t stomach the defeat.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Disenfranchise everyone over 70 years old.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Fine. Also, everyone under 25.

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Is that “progressive”? Just asking…

Snake Oil Cat
Snake Oil Cat
2 years ago

This is great news! Given the age demographic of Tory Party membership, they are hardly likely ever to do what you suggest.
Which means WE will assume control, reopen the Channel Tunnel and get the ‘ell out of here to EU countries where we can afford a home.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago
Reply to  Snake Oil Cat

You’re free to leave Britain now. British people lived and worked in other countries in Europe before 1993 and the formation of the EU, you know. If you can’t be bothered to fill in some forms, why didn’t you leave sometime between the Referendum and actual Brexit – you had almost 5 years.

There are 195 countries in the world and nobody is trapping you here. If you hate it, go.

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Snake Oil Cat

I wasn’t aware that the Chunnel was closed and besides, there are plenty of other routes to your EU mecca. さよăȘら!