“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Thus a 19th-century American novelist skewered the 21st-century Conservative Party.
For there is no other way to explain so many Tories’ wilful blindness to the most fundamental truths of a market economy than just to acknowledge that it is very much in their short-term electoral interest to pretend that one and one is three. I speak, of course, of housing.
The Government is bringing forward a Planning Bill that will attempt once again to force councils in the south to build more houses. According to the Times, some galaxy-brain at the Ministry of Housing (MHCLG) has worked out that “more homes are needed where prices are higher”.
Well, quite. This is called “supply and demand”, and one might be forgiven for assuming that the Conservative Party would be familiar with it already. But it is heartening to learn that Robert Jenrick’s building drive is underpinned by a firm grasp of the basics.
The same cannot be said of his opponents. Backbench Tories in leafy marginals have already staged one successful mutiny against the housing drive, when they saw off the “mutant algorithm” that had assigned more development to southern seats (where they’re needed) rather than northern seats (where they’re not). Now they’re gearing up to do the same thing again.
To do so, they are borrowing Boris Johnson’s feathers. Focusing development in southern England, they insist, is a betrayal of ‘levelling up’ that will do nothing to improve things in the North. Some, such as Bob Seely, claim that it will only accelerate the “endless drift of jobs and opportunities to the shires”.
Let’s be clear: whatever support and investment the north needs, housebuilding isn’t it. Homes there are for the most part very affordable. Indeed, it has been suggested that the roots of Tory success in the ‘Red Wall’ lie not in neglected town centres but in ‘Barratt Britain’, where affordable family homes allowed people to adopt the lifestyles that tend to turn people into Conservatives.
A rash of unnecessary homebuilding in the north bears the obvious risk of pushing down prices there even further. It is an odd definition of ‘levelling up’ that pushes the Party’s new voters into negative equity to give Theresa Villiers a five-year lease on Chipping Barnet.
Moreover, the case can be made that reducing house prices in the South can further benefit the North. Why? Because at present, excessive amounts of southern workers’ disposable income is gobbled up by landlords and banks. Bring prices down, and they can spend that money on goods and services, expanding the market that northern businesses can sell to.
The Conservatives have a problem in that across much of their southern strongholds, their short-term and long-term electoral interests are out of alignment. The former hinges on pandering to the homeowning NIMBY interest, lest the Liberal Democrats piggyback off local dissatisfaction with development (as they have in my own Hertfordshire hometown).
But in the long run, the Tories desperately need to replicate in London and the south what has happened in the North: put home-ownership, and by extension family formation, within reach of young professionals.
If not, then their position in the capital – a larger electorate than Scotland – will continue to degrade. Already a clutch of seats they either won or came close to winning in 2010 are deep underwater. But worse, if high house prices keep driving insecure voters out of the city then the overspill effect will eat away at once safe shire seats, as it has already done in places such as Brighton and Canterbury.
Judging by the Government’s determination to get a Planning Bill through, it looks as if they understand this – and are prepared to take on their backbenchers to pass it.
This is where victory in the Red Wall may be crucial. No Prime Minister with a narrow majority based on the Tories’ traditional map could have hoped to get ambitious planning reform through. A new base in the north gives the Party some electoral wriggle-room, the chance to withstand some churn in these seats between the NIMBY backlash and when the long-term positive effects of more affordable housing kick in.
After the 1992 election, there was some speculation that the UK might be ‘turning Japanese’, which is to say becoming a multi-party democracy that nonetheless had a single party of government most of the time. Obviously Black Wednesday and the New Labour landslide put paid to that. But it isn’t obvious there’s another of either in the pipeline, and the Government seems to have learned the LDP’s trick of building maglevs to every tiny village in every seat that voted for them (hello, Towns Fund).
If they can follow that up with giving southern professionals the same shot at owning a home and starting a family as their northern counterparts, hegemony could yet be within the Tories’ reach.
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