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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Blue skies: Part one

Is all the talk of One Nation Conservatism just spin or is there some substance that could mean good news for housing?

In the wake of their surprise election victory, and with the opposition in disarray, senior Tories have moved to claim the centre ground: David Cameron wants ‘blue collar Conservatism’; Robert Halfon says the Tories are the true Workers Party; and it’s full steam ahead for George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse. Even Cameron’s guru Steve Hilton is back in town calling the Living Wage a ‘moral absolute’.

It’s easy to be cynical about all of this when the party ended the campaign seemingly committed to taxing less and spending more at the same time as it runs a budget surplus. As things stand, expect lots of references to cutting tax for people on the minimum wage and rather fewer to cutting their tax credits and housing benefit. Those £12 billion cuts in welfare spending, plus another £13 billion of cuts in departmental budgets are yet to be spelt out.

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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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The day after

So it turns out that the winners in the ‘the housing election’ are upmarket estate agents and housebuilders.

The soaring share prices of firms like Berkeley Homes and Foxtons this morning may be as much about Labour defeat as Conservative victory. Take the mansion tax and moves against non-doms out of the equation and prices of expensive London homes are set to go on rising along with the profits of the firms that trade in them.

The mood could hardly be more different in a housing sector facing up to an unexpected Conservative overall majority that changes all the pre-election calculations about the right to buy (it won’t happen under a coalition) and huge cuts in social security (another party will block them).

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The final countdown

It’s been a tough job with so many to choose from but here are my 10 worst housing policies of the election campaign.

As we prepare to go to the polls, here are a few final reminders of what’s on offer:

1) We’re not going to tell you (Conservative). With extra points for repeated appearances, the Tory refusal to spell out where £12 billion of cuts in benefit spending will come from takes top spot. I first blogged about this before the short campaign began and we’ve learned little more apart from a pledge (sort of) to protect child benefit. Within hours of Iain Duncan Smith telling the BBC yesterday that ‘the work hasn’t been done yet’ on the specifics, The Guardian was publishing leaked documents with DWP proposals including increasing the bedroom tax and cutting housing benefit completely for the under-25s.

2) Exempt main homes worth to £1 million from inheritance tax (Conservative). Brilliant! A tax cut for the very well housed (aka bribe for Tory voters) that will further establish inheritance in its rightful place as the main route into home ownership.

3) Extend the right to buy to housing association tenants (Conservative). Yes, it’s true we’ve tried this before and had to drop it. Yes, forcing charities to sell their assets is a bit iffy. But trust us now we’ve found a way to pay for it: forcing councils to sell their best stock. All the homes sold will be replaced one for one, honest. What’s that you say? It doesn’t stack up? Sorry, we seem to be running out of time for questions on this one.
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Home nations

Whoever wins the Westminster election on May 7, more devolution looks inevitable. What will it mean for housing?

The impact is obvious in Wales, where major legislation on homelessness came into force this week, and Scotland and Northern Ireland. In England, momentum is building.

I spent most of this week at TAI 2015, the CIH Cymru conference in Cardiff. The final day saw a debate on the proposition ‘If you could only vote once in the next 18 months which election would you vote in: the General Election 2015 or the Welsh Government election 2016?’ On my count, the Westminster election won – but not by much.

And the closing speech by communities and tackling poverty minister Lesley Griffiths made clear just how much Wales is going its own way. ‘We believe in social housing,’ she told the conference, ‘and I firmly believe right to buy and right to acquire should end.’

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