Cabinet divisions over the government’s approach to Brexit are well known, but it seems there are plenty of other policy issues that pit ministers against each other – including housing.
Over the weekend, communities secretary Sajid Javid made a bold attempt to drag housing policy out of the swamp in which it dwells. His proposal was to “take advantage of the record low interest rates” in order to “invest in the infrastructure that leads to more housing”.
Javid was running a policy up the Whitehall flagpole, and seeing if it caught the wind. Alas, it did not. The policy fluttered about in the breeze before Philip Hammond cut the ropes and sent it flapping back down to earth. The chancellor was asked yesterday whether Javid’s idea could become government policy, and in response Hammond said “no”.
With the deficit firmly in mind, he added” “It is not responsible to make so-called hard choices by loading the price on to the next generation and the generation after that.” So that’s that, then: housing policy looks set to remain the preserve of tinkering schemes such as help to buy.
To be fair to Hammond, he has a valid point. Getting control of government borrowing remains a priority, and it’s not money the market needs – it’s land. To expand on this point in his typically erudite way, step forward Jacob Rees-Mogg, the honourable member from leafy, pleasant Somerset, who made a forceful case for building on the (heavily romanticised) green belt. Rees-Mogg said that borrowing billions to stimulate building would be “putting the cart before the horse,” adding that additional capital will be wasted if it’s injected into a “sclerotic” and “completely gummed up” planning system.
He is entirely correct, and no amount of ministerial interventions (in the form of help to buy Isas or streamlined sales processes) will come close to the transformative effects of liberalising planning regulations. The current green belt policy pushes up the cost of land and living, while reducing the overall quality of life. If London is to remain a liveable city, urgent action must be taken.
Javid is known to be sympathetic towards radical planning reform, and it's time the PM (and the chancellor) got on board.