A tale of two Conservative parties

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

If the Liz Truss government is serious about delivering growth and getting Britain moving then it has to be serious about housebuilding and planning reform.

The superficial signs are that it is: the promised programme of investment zones; promises of further reforms to boost housebuilding and home ownership in the Autumn; prime ministerial support for growth, growth and growth.

The underlying ideology shouts that it is: take a quick look at this briefing paper on housing from the Free Market Forum, an offshoot of the Institute of Economic Affairs whose parliamentary backers include Truss, chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, housing secretary Simon Clarke and housing and planning minister Lee Rowley.

But history still suggests a need for caution: exactly the same thing could have been said in 1983/84, 1988/89, 2010/11 and 2020/21, when Conservative ministers proposing planning liberalisation were thwarted by more cautious colleagues or rebellious backbenchers or both.

Because there are two poles of Conservatism: the libertarian, economic liberal one that is currently in the ascendancy and a social conservative one that sees green belts and planning regulations as a good way to conserve things.

Between those two poles, more pragmatic Tories recognise that they have to take account of both if they are to deliver more homes – and that their political success or failure in future could depend on that delivery.

However, there are still big unanswered questions about the extent to which we can necessarily equate more growth with housebuilding, let alone count more home ownership as supply side reform, as Simon Clarke did in a Times interview ahead of the Conservative conference.

That may be a convenient link to make politically but if anything the opposite has been the case in Britain, as investment has flooded into under-taxed residential property rather than more productive areas of the economy.

At the Conservative conference in Birmingham this week, both the prime minister and the housing secretary signalled their commitment to planning reform while saying next to nothing about affordable homes.

The message from Liz Truss was that ‘We must breakdown the barriers to growth built up in our system over decades. Decisions take too long. Burdens on businesses are too high. Infrastructure projects get delayed for years, and years and years.

‘As a result, we have seen economic growth choked off. Houses have not been built where they are needed and wanted.’

But curiously she did not include local Tory members among her ‘enemies of enterprise’ or as part of her ‘anti-growth coalition’.

Simon Clarke zoomed in to tell the conference that: ‘Accelerating development of brownfield sites is of the upmost importance, as is building beautifully. We want to grow organic communities, not impose cardboard boxes across our shires. As with investment zones, local consent will sit at the heart of our plans.

‘Because it is not the case that either home ownership, investment zones, or the wider challenge of levelling up, can be addressed from Whitehall.’

But we’ve heard all this before many times: investment zones are not a new idea and have had limited success when they (or enterprise zones) were tried before.

The idea seems to be to be that local consent for a bid will get around local objections to what is built – in much the same way as street votes would work in urban areas – but localism was one of the big themes of the first Cameron government and it had more success as a rhetorical theme than in delivery.

Green belt reform, especially on land close to stations, is definitely on the agenda of the Free Market Forum but it remains to be seen whether its parliamentary supporters will go that far.

Simon Clarke took to Twitter to deny a Guardian report that the zones would be allowed in national parks and areas with environmental protection.

Not building in the green belt or in any other protected area immediately takes the pressure off Tory seats in the South East.

Building on brownfield not greenfield sounds great to local Tories but we know that it will not deliver enough homes on its own.

In a similar vein, building homes in places where people want to live and work sounds great until you confront the issue of what happens if they want to live in Tory seats in the London suburbs and home counties.

As ever, there were some revealing comments away from the main conference stage.

Lee Rowley appeared at a Conservative Home fringe meeting on how to increase housebuilding and home ownership.

While very new to the job, he seemed well versed in the planning side of his brief thanks to his experience as a councillor and as MP for a constituency that is 38 per cent green belt.

He stressed the need for local decision making but emphasised the trade-offs involved in planning and said that ‘with rights come responsibilities’ on meeting housing need.

Investment zones are an attempt to align incentives for development, he said: ‘We are saying to local areas “where do you want development and how can we help you do that”.’

Speaking to Inside Housing, Rowley appeared to confirm that the manifesto aim of 300,000 new homes a year will be scrapped as part of the commitment made by Liz Truss during the leadership campaign to scrap ‘top-down housing targets’.

However, the most interesting comments for me came at a Centre for Policy Studies fringe meeting [watch here from about 2:25:00] from the last man to try – and fail – to get planning reform past Tory opposition.

As the last housing secretary but three, Robert Jenrick proposed radical planning reforms that were thwarted by a backbench Tory rebellion.

They finally hit the buffers when the Conservatives lost the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June 2021, a result that confirmed many of their seats in the South East had become to the Liberal Democrats as a result. Three months later he was sacked and the reforms paused.

Robert Jenrick told the meeting that in the year before the by-election more swimming pools were built in Chesham and Amersham than new homes.

He joked that he was the ‘St John the Baptist’ of housing and planning and in a not-so-veiled attack on his successor Michael Gove referred to ‘an anti-supply approach’ in the last 12 months’.

However, he also said he was ‘very suspicious’ of talk of ‘building homes in the right places’ because it was usually used by people who did not want them built anywhere near them.

And he made clear that the ‘Stalinist’ top-down targets targeted by Truss were introduced not by the last Labour government as many Tories assume but by the Theresa May administration.

And he cautioned against not having a ‘realistic number’ for the number of homes needed in a particular place was letting down local communities. ‘It’s a saying “Maidenhead [May’s constituency] is closed, go to Mansfield”.’

‘Targets succeeded,’ he said. ‘They were unpopular because they worked and persuaded local councils to unlock land they wouldn’t otherwise have been unlocked. If we are going to abolish them we are starting a couple of paces back.’

The Truss government seems determined to go full steam ahead on planning reform while attempting to sidestep the politics of planning in the South East. Whether it can succeed where so many have failed before very much remains to be seen.


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