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Housing policy — will the Tories never learn?

Boris Johnson holds a copy of the Conservative manifesto. Credit: Getty

November 25, 2019 - 4:14pm

Most comparisons between the Conservative and Labour manifestos are pointless. The latter is to fiscal credibility what MC Escher is to geometry.

Housing policy, however, is a partial exception — because the big solutions don’t depend on profligate state expenditure.

Last week, I gave a broad welcome to Labour’s proposals, though not without serious reservations. So how does the Tory offer compare? Let’s start with the good points.

First of all, there’s something that’s absent from the Labour manifesto — an emphasis on beauty:

We will ask every community to decide on its own design standards for new development, allowing residents a greater say on the style and design of development in their area, with local councils encouraged to build more beautiful architecture.
- Conservative Manifesto 2019

Also in contrast to Labour, there’s a commitment to “rebalance the housing market towards more home ownership”. What’s missing here, however, is a convincing set of policies to make this happen. Tory policy continues to centre upon poorly-targeted, economically-illiterate subsidies for first-time buyers, when what is needed is action on the root of the housing crisis — which is the exploitation of land monopolies by landlords, developers and speculators.

Beyond a welcome commitment to leasehold reform and a stamp duty surcharge on non-UK resident buyers, there’s not much that the ‘landed interest’ need fear from this manifesto. Instead, there’s this eye-catching policy:

We will offer more homes to local families, enabling councils to use developers’ contributions via the planning process to discount homes in perpetuity by a third for local people who cannot otherwise afford to buy in their area.
- Conservative Manifesto 2019

This is money that’s already needed and being used by councils to provide infrastructure for new development and expanded services for new residents. Unless the Conservatives propose to substantially increase developers’ contributions, then this policy will likely prove as effective as the ‘Starter Homes’ policy – an embarrassing failure.

In the absence of a sustained fall in house prices, a government that refuses to take action against rentiers and land bankers will not be able to deliver affordable home ownership. It doesn’t matter how many new homes are built, they will remain life-sappingly expensive if monopolists are allowed to extract most of the value created by development. Providing easier access to mortgage finance and deposits only facilitates the price-gouging.

As with the Labour manifesto, there’s a genuflection to the Green Belt — as well as lack of specifics as to where all those millions of new homes promised will be built. UK spatial policy remains decades out of date. Indeed, beyond specifying forbidden zones for development, it’s basically non-existent (apart from the inadequate ‘brownfield first’ mantra).

It may be that Labour extremism and incompetence is all that Boris Johnson needs to win a majority this time. But he shouldn’t forget that the differential turnout that delivered the shock result in 2017 was a ‘rent-quake’ — a rebellion of younger voters trapped in the private rented sector. If history repeats itself, then the post-mortem needs to start with the government’s housing policy.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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