16 February 2023

Does Theresa Villiers accept there is a housing shortage?


Last week, MPs debated the horrifying scale of Britain’s housing crisis. Just kidding! They actually held a debate on “brownfield development and the green belt”, in which various MPs, mostly Conservative, solemnly agreed with each other that they were very much in favour of the former and very much against the latter.

This was of course a Westminster Hall debate, meaning it had all the legislative force (and indeed policy rigour) of an argument down the pub – with the crucial exception that a minister of the crown doesn’t have to pretend at the end that you’ve all made very good points about whether Mo Salah should be playing down the middle or on the wing. 

But there was something rather striking – which is the position taken by former Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers.

Now, it’s something of an understatement to say I disagree with Villiers on housing. I led the charge against her amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB), on the grounds that they would inflict crippling damage on the economy, society, and the life chances of the younger generation. I called her proposals wicked, selfish and short-sighted – which they were and are.

But even by her standards, her argument in this recent debate went far beyond the consensus within the Tory party.

Let’s take the example of Wendy Morton, the former chief whip, who called for the debate in the first place. 

Morton was pretty clear that she wants all development to take place on brownfield if possible – condemning the ‘naysayers who tell us that brownfield land will not provide sufficient land to meet housing need and that the loss of brownfield sites for housing purposes will lead to the loss of land that could be used for employment purposes’. (Which is a reference to this recent paper we produced at the Centre for Policy Studies, which argued exactly that case.) 

But Morton also accepts that we do need to build houses. As she says, ‘we all recognise that we desperately need to see more homes come on stream faster and in larger numbers’ – her issue is with the type of homes we are building, and where. By diverting housebuilding on to brownfield, she says, we can be a ‘regeneration generation’.

That, however, is a sentiment that is strikingly absent from Villiers’ own remarks in the same debate.

Villiers insists, as Paul Smith pointed out on Twitter, that: ‘I very much welcome the new NPPF footnote 30, which promises that brownfield development will be prioritised over greenfield, but even on brownfield sites, it is crucial to respect factors like local character and density. “Brownfield first” must not mean brownfield free-for-all.’

She also has a section about London, in which she warns that:

‘…there is still an urgent need to curb the power of the Mayor of London to impose targets on the boroughs. We are the party that promised to scrap regional targets, yet they are alive and kicking in our capital city. The Mayor has used the London plan to try to load additional housing delivery obligations on to the suburbs, especially boroughs such as Barnet, which have already delivered thousands of new homes in recent years.’

In a way, this is admirably philosophically consistent. Villiers is against housing targets being imposed not just in rural areas, but urban ones too. Communities must have control.

But the problem with this vision is – where will we actually build the houses? For many Tories who have campaigned to protect their leafy constituencies, the trade-off is to park the houses in the cities. In London, for example, there is a huge stretch of land between the City and Canary Wharf that is crying out for regeneration and densification. But Villiers isn’t saying this. She’s saying that everyone, everywhere should be able to just say no to developments they view as inappropriate.

So does Villiers actually accept that there is a housing shortage? She doesn’t say so anywhere in her Westminster Hall speech. Or in the ConservativeHome piece which launched her intifada. Both instead refer to housing targets being excessively high. Which suggests that she has properly drunk the ultra-Nimby Kool-Aid, and convinced herself we don’t have a housing shortage at all. (A case utterly demolished by the CPS paper mentioned above.)

In fact, there is an extraordinary sentence in her Westminster Hall speech which appears to confirm this. She says that: ‘As the Better Planning Coalition says, the whole target-setting process should focus on housing need, rather than housing demand. They are not the same things, and should be properly distinguished.’

This is rather puzzling. The Better Planning Coalition is a coalition of anti-development forces including countryside and environment charities, and our old friends at the CPRE, which as I’ve pointed out on CapX has become the home of policy-based evidence-making in its zeal to block housebuilding, as well as the Corbynite New Economics Foundation. On their website you can find plenty of briefings urging that the housebuilding system be kneecapped. But I couldn’t find anything about housing need vs demand.

After doing a bit of online digging, however, I think I’ve got the answer. This is that ‘housing need’ is what happens when there are people in an area who literally don’t have homes, or at least homes they can afford. ‘Housing demand’ is what happens when people want to move house, or buy in an area where they don’t live.

This sentiment, if I’m right, is astonishingly, apocalyptically un-Conservative. It is treating housing as a resource that has to be allocated to each according to their needs. It utterly discounts the desire of people to move into a bigger home to raise a family, to be nearer a more attractive job, to get out of the city, to be with their parents. It sacrifices aspiration on the altar of ideology – the ideology being that development is always bad.

During the LURB row, I spoke to many Tory MPs, including those who had backed Villiers’ amendments. Most pointed out the existence of specific and completely legitimate problems with housebuilding in their constituencies that needed to be solved, which explained why they had supported her. But Villiers’ parliamentary colleagues need to ask themselves if they support a position which is, frankly, BANANAs – in the sense of Building Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.

At the end of her speech, Villiers gave a warning that in her ‘long-running battle to safeguard the local environment of Chipping Barnet’ – most notoriously by opposing bids to build over the car park at Cockfosters station – she will ‘fight with diligence, determination and perhaps even a little obstinacy’.

Those of us who believe that her fight to save her constituency’s carparks is inflicting untold damage on the rest of the country need to do the same.

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Robert Colvile is Editor-in-Chief of CapX