‘Here’s how to build a home owning Britain’

This is a temporary post with the full text of the op-ed on housing by David Cameron and George Osborne in Saturday’s Times:

Here’s how to build a home owning Britain

David Cameron and George Osborne

A shake-up of inheritance tax and crackdown on nimby councils will give young people a foothold on the property ladder

At a time of uncertainty abroad, here at home we will be delivering a budget next week with economic stability at its heart, offering security for working people.

Encouraging home ownership is central to that. Having your own place is an important stake in our economy. It’s also one of the best expressions of the aspirational country we want to build, where hard work is rewarded.

It’s also about social justice. We don’t want this to be a country where if you’re rich you can buy a home, but if you’re less well off you can’t. We want it to be One Nation, where whoever you are, you can get on in life.
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Blue skies: Part two

Is One Nation Conservatism anything more than PR puff? The conclusion of my blog sets out 12 tests of what it could and should mean in housing.

In the wake of the unexpected election result influential voices within the Conservative Party talked about the need for a new appeal to the aspirational working classes. Whether it’s called Blue Collar or One Nation Conservatism, the idea is to shake off the negativity of the nasty party, steal Labour’s clothes and lock in another majority for 2020.

Part one of this blog featured calls by people like Tim Montgomerie, David Green, Nick de Bois and Christian Guy not just for a radical new approach to housebuilding to spread the benefits of home ownership but also a new approach to housing to meet the needs of renters. Guy called housing ‘one of the social justice issues of our time’. There was more of this over the weekend, with Chris Walker of Policy Exchange calling housing ‘key to a Conservative vision for working people’.

But what does all this Tory philosophising amount to? The desire to appeal to aspirational workers (and for power in 2020) is certainly genuine enough but is the party really ready for its implications? The suspicion remains that this is as much about redefining the meaning of ‘One Nation’ as it is about changing course: one nation for those able to Work Hard and Do the Right Thing that looks the other way when it comes to those who cannot and ignores the fact that many of them will still not be able to pay their rent.

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Good start

Today’s housebuilding figures for England are the best since before the election of the coalition in March 2010.

While it’s always unwise to rely on one quarter’s figures, for once it seems hard to quibble with the positive spin put on them by Brandon Lewis. The housing minister was at best creative in his use of stats before the election as good news on starts was matched by bad on completions and vice-versa. However, these particular figures, which still cover the period under the coalition, seem to spin themselves.

For the first time since the end of 2007, the January to March 2015 quarter saw more than 40,000 starts. The total was up 31 per cent on the previous quarter and 11 per cent on a year earlier and the private sector, housing associations and local authorities all recorded increase.

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Heart, brain and Clegg

What could housing expect from a government influenced by parties other than the Conservatives and Labour? Part 1: the Lib Dems.

Assuming the polls are right and there will be another hung parliament,  any of the other five parties who took  part in the first TV debate could have an influence. The SNP and Plaid Cymru would seek concessions for Scotland and Wales while demanding less austerity from a Labour government, especially on welfare [though later the SNP reached out to the rest of the UK with a call for 100,000 affordable homes]. However, most housing issues are devolved from Westminster, so I’ll concentrate in this two-part blog on the other three parties. Power may matter a lot more than policies, there are some hints in the Lib Dem, Green and UKIP manifestos of what might offer common ground with one of the bigger parties.

So first, the Lib Dems. Assuming enough of them keep their seats, they could be a coalition partner (or a less formal supporter) for either a Tory or Labour government and they are the only party with a track record in coalition at Westminster.

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Plan C

So the Conservatives will pledge a ‘housing revolution’ at the election. Sound familiar?

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph over the weekend, George Osborne outlined a Tory plan to help a million more people into home ownership in the next parliament thanks to schemes like Help to Buy, Right to Buy and the Starter Home scheme.

‘I would like to see us double the number of first time buyers, up to half a million. That is the kind of level we saw in the 1980s. There is no reason why our country can’t achieve that again. That’s a goal we set ourselves today.

‘I think we can deliver a revolution in home ownership and make this the home-owning democracy, the home-owning society that I think is one of the Conservatives’ core beliefs.’

The chancellor says that visiting building sites is ‘the best part of my job’, not to mention donning high-vis jackets and being pictured with happy first-time buyers. ‘It reminds me of why we are doing this. Ultimately this is about people’s aspirations, their futures and their dreams.’

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Beyond the pale

When if ever will politicians catch up with the scale of the housing crisis unfolding before their eyes?

As the Homes for Britain campaign moves to the heart of Westminster, the default response of the major parties is to promise new homes. Traditionally, these come in multiples of 100,000:  the Conservatives want 100,000 and then 200,000 starter homes; Labour promises 200,000 new homes a year by 2020; the Liberal Democrats say 300,000 with a tenth of those being rent to own; and the Greens want 500,000 rented homes.

It was ever thus of course. Back in the 1950s, Labour and the Conservatives competed with each other to promise more homes. The difference was that they delivered. Macmillan pledged and then exceeded 300,000 a year as housing minister in the 1950s. This numbers game had major downsides in terms of design and build quality that we need to remember but it showed that governments were serious about housing.

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Starters’ orders

So the national housing strategy now comes down to this ahead of the election: think of a big number and double it.

Even by recent standards, the starter home initiative plumbs new depths in allowing the politics to drive the policy. The idea of building 100,000 homes at a 20 per cent discount for first-time buyers was first proposed in David Cameron’s conference speech in October. The launch (of a website to register interest, as no homes will be built for some time) was accelerated to this month when the consultation was published in December. And in Cameron’s housing speech today it’s been doubled to 200,000 homes.

Housing minister Brandon Lewis made a written statement earlier that is an extraordinarily rapid government response to a consultation that only ended three weeks ago. However, the response (full version here) is only to the original plan for 100,000 homes, not Cameron’s doubling of it. Reading through some of the responses to the consultation today, I was especially struck by this comment from the Council of Mortgage Lenders:

‘Our overall view of the scheme as outlined is that it could provide a modest addition to the flow of lower cost housing for FTBs and we would support this main objective. But we would warn against setting over-ambitious targets for the scheme at this juncture, before the attractiveness of this particular proposition has been tested on the market.’

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