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.

However, for the moment at least, the unexpected election result does appear to have opened up some possibilities:

And there is no shortage of Tory voices calling for a big drive on housing to be a key part of the new approach either. Tim Montgomerie set out the agenda of The Good Right before the election. David Green of the Civitas think tank calls for ‘an urgent, massive house-building challenge’ as part of a ‘One Nation boom for the whole of Britain’.

Nick de Bois, a rare Tory loser on May 7, identifies housing as one factor in his defeat in Enfield North and makes a powerful case for a new approach:

‘Most Government home ownership intervention has been to increase housing demand – so while we’ve some that get on the ladder, for far more people the prospect of home ownership in their 20s (and even 30s) has been pushed even further away. We therefore need intervention to increase supply to match the Government policies that have increased demand.

‘If we are intervening, we should intervene on a scale not seen since fifties under Macmillan, and feed supply through building programmes, both social and private. As a party, we are committed to re-balancing the economy between North and South, so why should we not seek to re-balance the housing market between the South East and the rest of the country?’

Most striking of all, Christian Guy director of the Centre for Social Justice think tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith, made the case for tackling the housing crisis head-on in a piece for the Telegraph this week. ‘I think of people like Sarah when I hear talk of One Nation Conservatism,’ he said:

‘Sarah’s family of five is stuck renting a two-bedroom property. Her three sons share one room and her daughter has the other. Each night Sarah, who suffers from depression, sleeps on the sofa. The place is falling apart. Her son’s school is concerned about his poor punctuality and attendance. She tries to tell them living conditions are tough and that they are on a long waiting list, desperate to move. Compounding this, her fixed-term employment contract recently ended and personal debts are building. Life is a battle.’

Housing instability has become ‘the new normal’ as home ownership falls, he argues, and we all pay a price for it through £24 billion worth of housing benefit. The human consequences of the housing crisis are felt in overcrowding and insecurity, the education and health of children and relationships:

‘One Nation Conservatives should understand that. Because for the housing have-nots, and for taxpayers, this is one of the social justice issues of our time.’

Guy argues that the promotion of home ownership should remain a priority. ‘Yet, by definition, One Nation Conservatism reaches beyond that base. It also stands with those on the lower rungs, where some people may never get a mortgage.’ That means ethical letting agents, action against rogue landlords and support for housing associations.  ‘And we need genuine one-for-one replacement under Right to Buy if our precious social housing safety net is to be strengthened.’

That will require bold leadership taking Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan as inspiration:

‘Conservatives should build homes and tackle the housing crisis head on precisely because they are Conservatives – people who believe in laying strong and secure foundations for individuals, families and society. I hope people like Sarah spur them on, whether she ever votes for them or not. That would be a true One Nation approach.’

But what might a One Nation housing policy mean in practice? One immediate statement of intent would have been to put the housing minister in the Cabinet (as Macmillan was). Sadly of course that did not happen and after a botched announcement (described by Christian Guy as ‘not the best start’) Brandon Lewis remains as minister of state.

However, the replacement of Eric Pickles with Greg Clark is a much more positive sign that localism could come to mean more than just the power to say no to things. Clark was of course responsible for the introduction of the NPPF as planning minister and back in 2011 he had this warning about the impact of the housing shortage: ‘It’s destroying family life in so many ways. How can a family put down roots if they’re on six months’ notice to quit on a buy-to-let?’

These are all fine words but can One Nation Conservatism really deliver for housing? Look out for Part 2 of this blog next week.


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