The Conservatives’ plan for solving the UK housing crisis: Big on ambition, low on detail

Chris Rumfitt
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The major housebuilders are seen by some factions of the Tory party as less part of the solution, more part of the problem (Source: Getty)

Although some polls have been showing Theresa May’s lead narrowing, the most likely outcome of this week’s General Election is still overwhelmingly a Tory government, and so what a Conservative win means for housing is critical.

While you can never entirely tell what politicians are going to do after an election victory, you can usually make a guess based on your knowledge of those involved and, of course, what’s in the manifestos.

The row over social care has obscured most other areas covered by the Conservative platform, including housing. Manifestos are important – the House of Lords will not block a policy that is clearly fulfilling a manifesto pledge, and Tory MPs will be reluctant to vote against specific policies that may have helped the party win the election.

So what does the 2017 Conservative manifesto have to say about housing? First, it has explicitly committed to a fairly large increase in housing supply – 250,000 homes a year by 2021. Second, it is less supportive of home ownership and even less friendly towards the large housebuilders than past Conservative manifestos have been.

On the first point, the promised level of housing supply has not been reached in decades. The manifesto’s radicalism in this area is balanced by the fact it is even more protectionist on the green belt than the 2015 platform.

May and her team are putting a lot of faith in an attempt to push individual councils to meet local housing need, including the possibility of “deals” that give them sweeteners in return for increasing housing stock, changes to compulsory purchase orders to help them get land to build on, and greater infrastructure support.

The detail here is fairly sketchy, but it will be a crucial part of making housing policy work. Similarly, the manifesto rightly talks about the need to improve the quality of new homes – something that is both a good idea in itself but would also reduce political hostility to property developments.

Overall, this is aiming towards the right goals, but the way it is implemented will be critical. Fixing housing is a tightrope between too little to work and so much that the parliamentary party gets restless. Putting in a goal of 250,000 homes a year will help, but not solve some of the more difficult issues. Get those wrong, and the Tory party will start demanding answers.

After all, Conservative Prime Ministers must always have one eye on their backbenches. The problem is that, while Conservative MPs (and to some extent voters) are in favour of building more homes in the general, they are usually less keen in the specific. When it comes to their area, support dissipates.

Solving this is key, and it is crucial to rebalance the planning process so legitimate issues like design and infrastructure are fixed without allowing councils to keep on just rejecting every development.

The second strand of the new Tory housing policy is also important. Home ownership is still mentioned as a goal, but it is not front and centre in the way that it was in 2015. While most people still want to own their home, this is seen by the manifesto as something not all will be able to manage.

The Right to Buy extension to those who live in housing association homes gets mentioned, but Help to Buy is notably not continued past 2021. Home ownership also gets another nod in terms of a promise to streamline and simplify buying a home – something anyone who has bought or sold a property will be extremely relieved to hear.

In addition, in some respects the major housebuilders are seen by some factions of the Tory party as less part of the solution, more part of the problem. Hopefully they will figure out a way to work with the government – it is in no one’s interest that the two sides fall out. But it may happen. Housing associations are given a more favourable mention, though it is clear that they too are expected to increase output, in London and elsewhere.

So beyond the headline of older generations needing to sell their homes to pay for social care, there is quite a lot in the manifesto on housing, though perhaps it’s more ambition and sweep than detail on how it will be achieved.

The Conservatives know, however, that if by 2022 the issues have not been resolved, housing will continue to rise up the agenda and Theresa May’s championing of the “just about managing” will sound incredibly hollow.

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