Which way will Johnson jump?

Originally published on February 11 on my blog for Inside Housing.

For the moment at least all things seem possible when it comes to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and housing.

Arguments apparently continue between those who want to shift further towards home ownership and those who see council housing as the focus for blue collar Conservatism.

The party seems to be facing in two opposite directions on new development, with some arguing for planning restrictions to be swept away while others see ‘beauty first’ as the key to winning local consent.

And these are just part of a wider battle between those who see Brexit as a chance to complete the Thatcherite revolution and those who think they must reverse some of it.

As an indication of the breadth of the possibilities, the Sunday Telegraph even reported that Johnson and chancellor Sajid Javid are considering imposing a mansion tax in the Budget.

The symbolism of taxing the well-housed in the South to spend more in the North could not be denied but would they really steal a policy from Ed Miliband’s Labour to screw their own supporters?

The first forks in the road are coming up soon with choices to be made about who will hold key ministerial positions in the reshuffle this week and what will be prioritised in the Spring Budget and in the Spending Review to follow.

In the meantime, though, what might a Boris Johnson housing policy look like?

We could look for clues to his record as London mayor, where he criticised some of the Cameron government’s cuts to housing benefit but had a dubious record on affordable housing.

We know the bare bones from the manifesto and the briefing around the Queen’s Speech and we know that white papers on social housing and planning and legislation on fire safety are on the agenda.

But that still leaves plenty of room for manoeuvre for a government that will struggle to satisfy its core vote in the affluent South as well as its new vote in the more deprived North.

So my starting point is to ask what a Johnson government could do if it focussed ruthlessly on protecting those gains.

For all the vague talk about levelling up different parts of the country, most of the debate so far has been about whether to complete HS2 or not.

A ruthless adviser at No 10 might also have noticed the Tories did least well in the big city seats where homelessness and affordability problems are at their most acute, see that they still won the election and conclude that there are no votes in housing.

Under Johnson, the party has already moved to downgrade the target of 300,000 new homes a year in favour of ‘at least a million’ over the next five (aka fewer than in the last five).

That means there is less pressure to do unpopular things in the South East and less need to pay lip service to the need for more social housing.

Why not, then, divert housing investment from expensive places like London to cheaper parts of the North and Midlands where you will get more homes for the same money?

And then there’s the Right to Buy. There may not be as many votes in it as there were for Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron’s promise to extend it to housing association tenants may be dead in the water and Robert Jenrick’s mooted right to shared ownership seems to have a few problems.

But why not divert some of the cash into funding for Right to Buy discounts for housing association tenants in carefully targeted regions like the North East and North West that are rich in marginal seats?

Council housing is annoyingly popular but why not go with the flow and rebrand all homes for sale and rent originated by councils or their housing companies or joint ventures as council houses?

That could be made part of a wider push to direct policy to help existing tenants rather than new ones and turn housing into a wedge issue.

When it comes to allocations, the Tories already have the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights in their sights as next steps after Brexit – so why not use that to minimise the chances of legal challenges from advocates for homeless people and migrants?

Then there are First Homes. The scheme consulted on last week is an improvement on (non) starter homes because it retains the discount in perpetuity but it still looks likely to elbow aside other forms of affordable housing delivered via Section 106.

So far it looks relatively small scale but why not turbocharge it and listen to the right-wing commentators urging you to hand the discount over to the first buyer?

Once you start it’s not hard to come up with policies that would appeal to a ruthless operator at No 10 – at least in the short term.

But what about the long term? If they want to stop housing coming back to bite them in a few years’ time, the Conservatives have to at least look like they are doing something about the multiple housing crises facing the country. What should they do in their own long-term interests?

That manifesto promise to end rough sleeping by 2024 will not be delivered by rhetoric alone and will require serious investment in affordable homes as well as targeted intervention if it is not to turn into a liability.

Why not accept that and reap the political benefits of being seen to invest in council houses – while endlessly repeating how few were built by the last Labour government?

And if the Tories want a spending programme that will combine jobs in the right areas with sending the right signals on the environment ahead of COP26, why not kick off the decarbonisation of England’s homes with projects starting in social housing in the North?

And why not celebrate Brexit by using our new-found freedom to scrap VAT on home improvements, boosting the decarbonisation drive and delivering benefits to existing communities?

The decline of home ownership may have stopped for now but Tories know that Help to Buy cannot run for ever and that ownership prospects that rely on the Bank of Mum and Dad and inherited wealth run completely counter to their aspirational message.

In the background too there must be concern that the Boris Bounce in the housing market could be followed by a Boris Bust once Brexit is done – and older Tories may remember what happened in the early 1990s.

All of these points suggest that the Conservatives cannot afford to put housing on the backburner.

But what will they do? Some things – such as the cuts in stamp duty promised by Johnson during the Tory leadership contest – might look like Budget probabilities.

But reports earlier this month suggest that all departments have been told to draw up plans for 5 per cent cuts to their programmes to fund increases for the government’s top priorities of the NHS, fighting crime and ‘levelling up’.

That sounds like ominous news for housing investment and housing benefit in the Spending Review unless they can be presented as being about tackling regional inequality.

Tweaks to two existing programmes might be wise too. The New Homes Bonus has been a mechanism for redistributing money from the North to the South just as existing Tory policies do the same to council funding.

And, while Help to Buy has delivered more benefits to new home owners in areas where house prices are lower, the slimmed down version of it that starts in 2021 has regional price caps that could limit its impact in the North and Midlands.

Ministers have to find a way to fix the fire safety crisis affecting leaseholders and tenants all over the county – and that means accepting that the limited funding for ACM replacement does not go remotely far enough and that loans will be seen as insulting.

Similarly, they have to be seen to deliver on the green paper promises of a new deal for social housing tenants – and that means tangible action not just rhetoric in the white paper.

And they have to find a way to square the circle on planning between those two very different schools of thought on planning – for example, will the review of permitted development promised in last year’s Spring Statement rein it in or extend it?

The time for decisions on all of this is coming soon. Which road will the Johnson government take?


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