1 March 2022

Britain will pay the price for indulging the anti-housing lobby


It was apparently said of Hannibal Barca that he knew how to win a victory, but not how to use one. The famous Carthaginian general inflicted a string of spectacular feats on Rome, but lost the war and died in exile.

Boris Johnson loves a classical allusion, although he may not be flattered by this one. But following the news that Michael Gove will abandon proposals for a zonal planning system – a move hinted at last autumn – and reports that he plans to slash housing targets in the south, the comparison seems increasingly apt.

Just over two years ago, the Prime Minister led the Conservatives to their most convincing election victory since the 1980s, redrawing the electoral map of England in the process. The foundations had been laid for what might have been an historic reforming premiership.

It didn’t pan out that way. First, the pandemic upended the political agenda and rightly consumed the Government’s attention in 2020 and 2021. Then a series of self-inflicted scandals drained Johnson’s reserves of political capital.

‘Partygate’ may yet be the Prime Minister’s undoing, although a major foreign crisis will certainly help his efforts to cling on until the news agenda pushes it off the front pages for good. But even if it doesn’t, the impact on Johnson’s standing with the voters has been severe – YouGov finds him posting negative ratings on all five attributes it tests, including likeability.

As a result, a man who could once sell himself as able to carry the Tory message to voters the party could not normally reach is now shaping up to be a drag on his party’s fortunes at the next election.

This new reality has inevitable consequences on his internal position. So long as he and they were ahead in the polls, Tory MPs proved remarkably willing to put up with U-turns on issues such as free school meals, and activists seemed prepared to put up with a leftish agenda they would not have accepted from Theresa May. Not any more.

Of course, there was no certainty that Johnson would have seen through planning reform even if he was still in his imperial pomp; his instinct is to hoard and then squander political capital, rather than strategically spending it on his own terms.

But he had a rare opportunity to do so. At the start of 2020, Johnson possessed both the charismatic knack for selling Conservatives on policies they weren’t traditionally keen on and a majority less dependent on shire seats in the South.

Instead, both the party and the country will pay a high price for his failure to see through meaningful reform. As he scrambles to stave off a leadership challenge, Johnson has fallen back on pandering to the back benches – which means MPs with the most myopic approach to housing policy are in the ascendant.

Be in no doubt – scrapping these reforms is going to make us all poorer. Housing costs continue to climb, even as the Government heaps fresh taxes on working-age people. The special savings vehicles set up under the Coalition to help people save for homeownership, such as Lifetime ISAs, are neither index-linked nor even London-weighted, meaning the actual power of the £450,000 limit tumbles year after year.

Britain is under-built, because existing property owners – an increasingly share of which have fixed incomes from pensions – are over-indulged. Developing the Ox-Cam Arc should be a no-brainer, yet it too has been scrapped. We want London to be a global city, but cannot summon the courage to inform people living in the flight paths of our airports that yes, there will be more planes now.

For young people (if the term has any meaning applying to people in their early 40s) it is increasingly difficult to see what the point of voting Conservative is. And as more voters are forced out of London, more true-blue seats in the south-east will start flipping. If nothing changes, then in the middle-distance a catastrophic rout awaits the Tories, and they will deserve it.

In the meantime, the policy situation seems likely to go from bad to worse. Without a separate Planning Bill, such reform as there is looks set to be rolled into the Levelling Up legislation. This will be a boon to those MPs who are busily trying to redirect housebuilding targets from the south, where they’re needed, to the north, where they’re not.

And of course, the anti-housing lobby has banked these concessions and immediately pressed fresh demands. There is no middle ground to be found with the propertied-interest lobby, as Gove probably well knows. But nobody with any ambitions to lead the Tories is going to take them on.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.