After this week leaders’ debate I am going to stick my neck out and predict that the Conservatives will win a working majority at this election, perhaps by as many as 30 seats. A month from now, when Jeremy Corbyn is in Number 10, feel free to call me an idiot. At this stage of the last election the Conservatives had a stronger lead in the polls, but I don’t think Boris Johnson will make the same mistakes as Theresa May.
I know that a Johnson government will be a huge disappointment to most people in our sector, but I’ve always taken the view that we need to reach out across the political spectrum to make the case for social housing. When we founded the SHOUT campaign in 2014, we made sure that the launch included Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and Green politicians. I also wrote an article for the Conservative Home website making the case for social rented homes.
If there is another Conservative government by Christmas, we’ll need to carry on arguing for social housing.
I wrote a recent blog about Boris Johnson’s views on housing. They are not encouraging. But the floor-crossing shenanigans of the last year have shown that political parties are not monoliths: they contain a range of views, and within the Conservative Party and on the right there are many voices calling for urgent attention to our housing crisis, which means that there’s some potentially fertile ground upon which to scatter our seeds of housing wisdom. Persuading the new government that social housing is a big part of the answer will be a struggle but “say not the struggle nought availeth”.
As an example, here are a few selected words from a senior Conservative politician:
“I want to see housing associations taking on and leading major developments themselves…your social mission can ensure developments are rooted in a conception of the public good, rather than in a simple profit motive…creating genuinely mixed communities with the right infrastructure and truly affordable housing…you also have a much broader role to play…changing the way tenants and society as a whole think about social housing…for many people, a certain stigma still clings to social housing…some residents feel marginalised and overlooked, and are ashamed to share the fact that their home belongs to a housingassociation or local authority…I want to see social housing that is so good people are proud to call it their home.”
That could have been in a speech by Jeremy Corbyn, but it was of course Theresa May, speaking to the NHF in September last year. If you search for housing-related articles on the Conservative Home website you will find a range of views on housing, some very positive. For example, here is Bob Seely erstwhile MP for the Isle of Wight, calling for between 250,000 and 340,000 net additions a year; for upwards of £9bn of funds to go to registered providers to buy up and convert bungalows and provide a new generation of key worker and starter homes; for an end to the automatic right to buy; and for government to pass government land to councils more swiftly.
Next is our ally Lord Gary Porter bemoaning the rampant nimbysim among traditional Tory voters, and arguing the case for better funding of infrastructure and new homes to attract younger middle-aged voters.
Or here is Will Tanner, a former advisor to Theresa May, describing how careful resident consultation can overcome nimby opposition, citing a scheme in Newquay where the community was persuaded to support a four-times larger mixed use development on the edge of town that will increase the size of the town by 20%. A development that “will serve Newquay’s housing needs for not just five but the next fifty years”. By engaging sensibly with local people and meeting their needs, and not just the short-term interests of developers and landowners, nimbys were turned into yimbys, he writes.
Of course, there are also voices at the other end of the spectrum, like our old friend Harry Phibbs asking why we have targets for housebuilding, since we don’t set target for the the number of dishwashers or pairs of trousers we need each year.
Some commentators from the right-leaning press are also making a very strong case for radical reforms to build more homes, arguing that the Tories will lose unless they address the housing crisis. Foremost is Liam Halligan (“Tackle Britain’s housing crisis or risk socialist rule”). He has been economic correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph since 2003 (he shared a flat with Dominic Cummings in Moscow in the mid-nineties) and his new book, Home Truths, sets out a radical reform agenda. He calls for supply-side stimuli rather than the £billions that have been wasted on Help to Buy. He rails against the oligopoly that is the housebuilding industry and urges stiff fines for developers who fail to build out their sites. He supports selective building on the Green Belt (yes!), and, above all, the repeal of the 1961 Land Compensation Act so that landowners can be fairly taxed for any uplift in land values.
To take a typical example from recent government figures, a hectare of agricultural land around Reading might sell for £22,000, but the same land with residential planning permission could fetch £5m. Halligan suggests a 50/50 split in the uplift for the landowner and the state. This revenue, he says, could be ring-fenced to fund the new schools, hospitals and other infrastructure that would make housebuilding more popular with local communities, and allow local authorities to build millions of social homes. This is a call that is being supported by, among others, Sajid Javid (it would ease land speculation, he says) and Tony Pidgeley, founder of Berkeley Homes.
All this is hardly traditional Tory fare – in fact, it wouldn’t look out of place in a Labour manifesto. It seems that the scale and range of the housing crisis is finally hitting home.
So, look on the bright side, there are chinks of light on the horizon. To quote another song, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.