(N.B. I wrote this on the 15th July, a week before Boris Johnson was elected as Leader of the Conservative Party with 66.4% of the vote)
I’m going to take a punt and predict that Boris Johnson will become prime minister on the 22 July with at least two thirds of Tory members’ votes.
(If I’m wrong, and Johnson loses, then stop reading now!) What, then, will a Johnson premiership mean for housing?
In the short term, probably very little. He will be pre-occupied in the first few months with Brexit and its aftermath. Perhaps he will also call a snap general election.
But thereafter, what do we know about his track record and his views on housing, and affordable housing in particular?
His published writings offer an insight. In an article last year titled We need to kickstart the housing market by kicking developers who treat buyers like serfs he attacked Persimmon for building shoddy homes and commented on the problems faced by first time buyers:
“This is meant to be Britain, the great homeowning democracy, but we now have lower rates of owner-occupation, for the under-forties, than France and Germany.”
“In the seventies we were building about 300,000 a year…By the time of Tony Blair’s Labourgovernment, that number had fallen to 156,000… the underlying problem is supply.”
The answer, he concluded, was to liberate brownfield and public land, reduce stamp duty, tackle landbanking, and to “…tell Lefties like Sadiq Khan to stop their ideological obsession with quotas for affordable housing on each development”.
So, Johnson is very much on the Policy Exchange wing of Conservatism. He wants to build, build, build, but his priority is on boosting the overall supply of market homes, and thus pushing down prices (he hopes), rather than any focus on traditional social housing.
His track record at City Hall highlights his philosophy. During his two terms as London Mayor (2008-16) he set a target of building a total of 100,000 new affordable homes. Although he just missed the target, much of the output was not affordable by any rational definition. They were “affordable” rent homes, at up to 80% of market rents (i.e. not affordable in London), intermediate rent and other forms of homes creatively defined as “affordable” under government rules. Homes let at “social rent” or its sibling “London Affordable Rent” fell from more than 10,000 a year to around 500 under his watch.
The planning decisions he took as mayor also reflected his obsession with supply. Far from being the “kicker” of developers, he was their close friend and ally. He repeatedly vetoed the boroughs and allowed developers to reduce the percentage of affordable homes on major planning schemes. At Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, a development of 681 homes on the Islington- Camden border, the proportion of social homes was reduced to 24% (163 in total) of which 98 are affordable rent and 65 shared ownership. Once it had obtained planning permission, Royal Mail sold it to Taylor Wimpey for £193m. Work is now underway.
At Battersea Power station, where over 4,000 homes are being built, only 15% were“affordable” and this was reduced to 9% after the developer pled poverty.
In contrast, Sadiq Khan has been upping the percentage of affordable housing in schemes. Hale Wharf in Tottenham, for example, was increased from 9% to 35%.
Johnson’s capital programme for housing associations was heavily undersubscribed by£400m, due to the high rents and other restrictions he demanded.
Incidentally, in 2009 he also promised to end rough sleeping in London within three years. Yet by 2015 there were almost 1,000 people living on London’s streets.
Boris Johnson’s views on social housing are robust. In a speech in October last year he attacked Labour’s policies “which centre on the building and control of state-ownedhousing”. Describing a visit to a young family “trapped” in a mouldy council flat in Wolverhampton he said “I thought what a difference it would make to that family if they had been able to take back control – to coin a phrase…. to buy that flat”.
He had, he said, lost count of the times that people on the doorstep had told him that they would vote Conservative out of “sheer gratitude” that they had been able to buy theirown home. He went on:
“That is what people want – the pride of having a place they own…and yet Labour hates that instinct. Because although they live themselves in posh Islington townhouses, they would much rather that the electorate stayed in social rented accommodation, passed by hereditary right – as, incredibly, these state-owned dwellings are – from one generationto the next.”
He said that Labour like people in social housing because “If you stay in social rentedaccommodation you are more likely to vote Labour”.
So, there is his philosophy in a nutshell. Social housing means Labour voters. Homeowners means Tory voters. Shirley Porter would be proud of him.
To conclude, I think Johnson sees homeownership as the only game in town. His target demographic is the young couple struggling to buy their first home. He is instinctively suspicious of social housing, and a big fan of the Right to Buy.
Therefore, you can expect investment in genuinely affordable homes to be scanty, and it is likely that compulsory Right to Buy for housing associations will be back on the policy agenda. He might rattle developers’ cages about land-banking and do something about public land and stamp duty, but all in all Boris Johnson in Number 10 means a gloomy outlook for social housing.
(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network)