Emboldened by the majority delivered to the Conservatives on May 7th, by the broadly warm reception to his One Nation Budget, and by the success of his long-term economic plan, George Osborne is now confident enough to announce a housing policy that this morning’s Daily Telegraph – as Tory a paper as there is, of course – says will “force communities to accept development against their will”.
Of course, communities – shorthand for which, if the Telegraph readership conforms to type, means sleepy, affluent West Sussex village – can come quietly. Compulsion will only happen if councils, put off by local opposition, fail to agree local plans and build enough homes in the first place. But are those in the Tory shires really going to accept willingly developments that they would consider to threaten as the very fabric of where they live? New homes mean more people, which means more traffic, more pressure on school places, and longer waits for a GP appointment. And more supply also brings down the value of their own homes
It’s no coincidence that the announcement comes now, at the start of the five-year term, of course – it’s not sensible to upset your core vote too close to a General Election, and yet good politics to look energetic on housebuilding ahead of London elections next year, council and Mayoral, in which housing will be a central issue.
But either way, Osborne is addressing an acute economic and societal need. He’s right that the UK doesn’t build enough homes. He’s right that brownfield sites are chronically under-utilised. He’s right that young people (or late-30-somethings, even early-40-somethings) cannot get on the housing ladder. He’s right that London’s housing problems are especially severe, where so many are stuck on rent and the percentage of home owners is now down to less than half.
And so it follows that he is right – when these issues are not being tackled by communities and councils – to step in, and sweep away the regulations causing the blockages, even if enforcement isn’t a regular Tory look (though de-regulation is).
So we will have automatic permission for brownfield sites – developing idle, de-industrialised brownfield land is imperative. An understanding that such sites won’t on their own solve the problem is why London developers will be allowed to build up, no planning permission required, and why the capital’s commuter towns and villages are being asked to take their share (or else).
Osborne has dressed up his planning reforms as a boost for productivity, and in terms of house-building, and quicker commuter travel times, that should be the case.
But it should also knock down the country’s crippling housing benefit bill, currently standing at £24 billion – nothing will bring down rental costs, which go on the Government tab, quite like a bit of supply.
And that is something that Tory voters will like .