Blue futures

Originally published on July 5 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

I wouldn’t pretend for a second that housing is anywhere near top of the to do list for the five contenders to be the new Conservative leader and prime minister – or that the winner will mean a radical change in approach.

But so many political certainties have been overturned in the last week or so that nothing can be ruled out. Not least, George Osborne’s decision to abandon his budget surplus target changes the financial parameters for housing policy in ways that are only just beginning to be thought through.

This could open up new possibilities for housing in the Autumn Statement under a new prime minister and quite possibly a new chancellor. However, it’s also likely to mean that austerity will continue into the 2020s.

The background of the contenders alone will be a change. Unlike David Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson, all five of them are state-educated. Two (Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox) were even brought up in council housing.

So what about housing? There are divisions between the contenders on their attitudes: some are ready to concede a role for social housing while others focus completely on the market and three of the five appear to be saying that housing will be a bigger priority with a bigger budget.

However, the main dividing line is between supporters of and objectors to new homes. This tension between ‘supporters’ and ‘objectors’ has been evident throughout the coalition and Conservative governments and reached uneasy compromise in the National Planning Policy Framework, with ‘localism’ balanced by the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

There are some significant differences on this between them. However, one big question is whether housing will be better off under a prime minister who leaves the sector to get on with the job or one who embarks on yet more ‘reform’.

In terms of their political support, Theresa May has the nominations of Brandon Lewis and former housing minister Kris Hopkins, while Michael Gove is supported by former planning minister Nick Boles and Andrea Leadsom is backed by former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Greg Clark, communities minister Mark Francois and the other two housing ministers under the coalition – Grant Shapps and Mark Prisk – have not yet declared who they support as far as I’m aware.

So here’s where they stand (in order of nominations reported so far):

Theresa May

The favourite for the leadership is much less of a known quantity on housing and there are mixed messages as to where she stands on new homes.

Recent posts in the housing and development category on her website welcome new market and affordable homes in her Maidenhead constituency. Go further back, though, and the posts are all about supporting local objectors to new homes and protecting the Green Belt. And look at the web address and the whole housing category is titled ‘over-development’.

In her leadership pitch she made big play of social mobility:

‘Because Britain still needs a Government that is capable of delivering a programme of serious social reform and realising a vision of a country that truly works for everyone.’

Alongside disadvantages that flow from wealth or class or gender or race:

‘If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home. These are all burning injustices, and – as I did with the misuse of stop and search and deaths in police custody and modern slavery – I am determined to fight against them.’

Note that the ‘burning injustice’ in housing is not being able to own your own home rather than not having one at all. She goes on:

‘But the mission to make this a country that works for everyone goes further than fighting these injustices. If you’re from an ordinary, working-class family, life is just much harder than many people in politics realise. You have a job, but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about mortgage rates going up. You can just about manage, but you worry about the cost of living and the quality of the local school, because there’s no other choice for you.’

Life may be harder than most politicians realise but May seems unaware of the millions of people struggling to pay their rent as well as their mortgage.

Andrea Leadsom

She is the most unknown quantity in the race because she’s never been a Cabinet minister. Leadsom has attracted support from UKIP after pledging to invoke Article 50 (the mechanism to leave the EU) as soon as she becomes prime minister but only three years ago she said Brexit would be ‘a disaster’.

The former banker attracted controversy when she was appointed economic secretary to the Treasury over the tax affairs of the buy-to-let company she founded with her husband. Her responsibilities in this job, from April 2014 to May 2015, included Help to Buy. Following the 2015 general election she became a junior energy and climate change minister.

The planning section of her website includes many examples of her acting against ‘excessive development’ in her South Northamptonshire constituency.

However, at the launch of her leadership bid on Monday, she signaled that housing would be a bigger priority if she wins:

‘I will appoint a key minister for housing and try my hardest to keep him or her in the job for the rest of the parliament. I want a minister who thinks of nothing other than how to use a bigger housing budget to deliver on the aspirations of the working people of this country.’

Michael Gove

After stabbing David Cameron and Boris Johnson in the back, the justice secretary seems to have ended up sticking the knife into his own chances of becoming leader.

But his pitch for the job has the most intriguing line on housing. This is the key paragraph:

‘We need a national ambition to build 100s of thousands of new homes a year, both private and socially-rented – led by someone who will not take no for an answer and who will push for diggers in the ground and homes for all come what may.’

While few people would now think it’s a good idea to take Gove at his word, the two bits I’ve put in italics are very interesting. The first signals a potential willingness to reconsider the government’s focus on ownership and willingness to cannibalise social renting to achieve it. The second identifies him as a strong supporter of new homes and ‘come what may’ suggests a willingness to go further than current poicy.

Gove was shadow housing minister before Grant Shapps and is generally credited with shifting the Conservatives to a more pro-development position. He is supported by Nick Boles, the most effective advocate of new homes under the coalition. Both are closely associated with Policy Exhange, Gove as its first chairman and Boles as its first director, and so the think tank’s ideas could be even more influential if he wins.

Overall, a Gove leadership would be good news and bad news for housing. The good could be a much stronger emphasis on getting new homes built and removing the obstacles to that. ‘Free’ housing associations might sound like a great idea to the promoter of ‘free’ schools. The bad could be that social landlords will be perceived as one of those obstacles just as Gove saw teachers as part of ‘the blob’ to be taken on when he was education secretary. 

Stephen Crabb

Perhaps the work and pensions secretary thinks negotiating a Brexit deal will be easier than sorting out universal credit? Either way the former Welsh secretary has one small problem when it comes to housing: policy is devolved in Wales and under English Votes for English Laws he will not have a vote in England.

That said, he is seen as being on the Tory Left (a relative term given his vote against gay marriage and links to a controversial charity) and is associated with the Compassionate Conservative Caucus. And his back story makes him a more convincing advocate for ‘One Nation’ Conservatism than his rivals. In his pitch to be leader he said:

‘I came into politics to see people’s lives improve. To do my bit to break down the barriers to opportunity. To give more people a better chance of reaching their full potential – yes a better job, a higher wage, the chance to own their own home, to take your family on holiday once a year, decent schools for their kids.’

Like most of the others, this makes it seem as though the chance to own your own home is the only thing that matters. In an interview in The Times on Saturday he talks approvingly of the Right to Buy but says Conservatives must also understand the Brexit vote:

‘Housing estates were turning out for the first time in this referendum. I don’t think what was motivating them was just the super-rich getting too much but people do feel that London has become something of a playground for the rich. We need to restore a sense of aspiration in the housing market. Whoever becomes prime minister must have a strategy for housing. I’m not ideologically opposed to social housing — I want more of everything.’

And Crabb and his running mate Sajid Javid are proposing a new programme of infrastructure investment funded by new government bonds taking advantage of low borrowing costs. The £100 bn Growing Britain Fund would include rail, flood defence and broadband projects but also social housing, school buildings and prisons.

Liam Fox

Nobody seems to think the former defence secretary has a chance of making it to final two. Though brought up in council housing (in common with more than half of Scots of his age), the former Cabinet minister appears to see housing in very conventional Tory terms and argued in his leadership pitch:

‘We must ensure a fair balance between generations, so that those who have contributed a lifetime of work to our country are properly looked after without placing an undue burden on the young who have as much right as their parents and grandparents to be part of a property owning democracy with the ability to get on the housing ladder while avoiding penal rates of taxation.’

Fox has battled to cut the number of new homes planned in his North Somerset constituency. His declaration of interests includes rental income of more than £10,000 a year from residential property in London SE1.

The five candidates will be whittled down to a shortlist of two in a series of ballots by Tory MPs, starting on Tuesday.

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