14 April 2023

Spartan Britain: the housing crisis is creating a helot class


In a blog post on home ownership for Policy Exchange last year, James Vitali wrote that ‘today, the Conservative Party must be the party of “One Nation”, not two nations split along generational lines’.

I have used that quote regularly since, because it sums up perfectly the effects Britain’s housing policy. But things are about to get even worse, with the news that 55 local authorities have scrapped their planning targets by suspending their development plans, which specify how they will meet demand for new homes in their area.

Some of those councils have been explicit that this will mean a long-term decline in the number of houses they deliver and, according to The Times, developers have warned that this could mean 77,000 fewer homes every year across the UK – with the fewest homes being built in the areas of greatest demand.

For those who do not already own their own their own home, this is a blow as heartbreaking as watching an England batting collapse. 

By abandoning the mandatory target of building 300,000 homes a year, the Government has not only laid down the stick by which it could ensure homes are built against NIMBY wishes, but snapped it across it’s knee. But the carrots for housebuilding are no longer on offer either, with Help to Buy coming to an end last week.

The Government is now left with a housebuilding policy that offers neither supply nor demand side measures, neither carrot nor stick. Faced with this policy vacuum, there is little for ministers to do but tinker around the edges by altering the ownership of existing housing. Take the recent consultation on making Airbnb hosts seek planning permission to turn their homes into lets, or giving councils the opportunity to introduce a 100% tax increase on second homes – a policy which I, as a Councillor in North Yorkshire, voted for

But this is thin gruel in the face of a housing market that is, according to the Centre for Cities, missing more than 4 million homes.

The consistent failure of Conservatives to tackle the most pressing issue in the housing crisis – the lack of supply – leaves James Vitali’s ‘two-nation Toryism’ closer than ever, and is rendering the propertyless a helot class.

The effects of the dropping housing targets are already clear to see in Bristol, where the council voted unanimously to scrap the Government’s housing target last Tuesday. By sheer coincidence, yesterday the same council voted to remove thousands of people from their housing waiting lists, as the likelihood of finding them a home stood at less than 1%.

Delivering housing is an exercise in will, and our will is weak. But Conservatives must recognise it as an economic and political imperative, as well as moral duty. 

As the authors of the ‘Housing Theory of Everything’ note, housing shortages have effects ‘on things as wildly different as obesity, fertility, inequality, climate change and wage growth’. Politically, the failure to give younger generations anything to gain in material terms by voting Conservatives is doubtless contributing to a ticking time bomb of intergenerational disparity, with a whole generation on the losing side refusing to move rightwards as they age.

Morally, the failure to deliver enough supply of homes has held up a whole generation on the road to home ownership, preventing people living the kind of lives the Conservatives are supposedly in power to enable. As David Willets wrote in The Pinch, ‘what was previously a normal rite of passage to adulthood has instead become like a scaling peak that can only be conquered after years of hard work and preparation’.

The housing crisis is worst in London, where first-time buyers in London now need nine times their annual salaries to get on the first rung of the property ladder. The impact of such an unsustainable rise in prices is that, as reported by Aditya Chakrabortty, ‘communities are hollowed out’ and the capital becomes increasingly childless. Far from just leaving towns, however, increasing housing costs across the board are causing couples to defer starting families for longer and longer.

So what is to be done?

We could do a lot worse than look to Canada, where Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has demonstrated a genuinely inspirational commitment to delivering more homes. He has seized on not only the political and economic benefits, but the moral necessity of building more homes – and has been richly rewarded. Polievere started out with one of the lowest approval ratings of any Canadian Conservative leader but, as Canadians have begun to feel increasingly financially precarious, the latest polls show he has an 8-point lead over Justin Trudeau. 

Conservatives here need to heed Poilievre’s example and grasp the housing nettle. To do that planning reform is necessary, but not sufficient. An extensive and intensive programme of housebuilding, either delivered or backed by government, would shield delivery from economic pressures, whilst lowering net immigration would help reduce demand.

One of the great underpinnings of Thatcherism was the belief that an increase in popular participation in capitalism would create a better society; enabling people to accrue enough wealth for them to stand on their own two feet would, it was hoped, create a society of greater self-respect and dignity. But that ideal goes back further than the Iron Lady. Anthony Eden called property ownership ‘a reward, a right and a responsibility that must be shared’. After being appointed Housing Minister by Churchill in 1951 in order to deliver a vast swathe of housing, Harold Macmillan recognised that ‘every humble home will bless my name, if I succeed.’ 

Home ownership is a cornerstone of conservativism. If Conservatives want to reclaim the political, economic and moral benefits that go along with it then they will need to focus on home ownership, not home owners.

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Tom Jones is a writer and a Conservative councillor for Scotton & Lower Wensleydale.

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