Catch 22 – A Conservative Dilemma | Benjamin Woods
Conservatism† is a broad ideology, and the Conservative Party an even broader church. However, fundamental principles bind them all: freedom of speech and expression, free markets, defence of the nation-state, the rule of law, and crucially the right to private property. There are other aspects of conservatism, of course, but for me, these are the most fundamental.
It is the latter that is the most important, with the very foundation not only of conservatism but of capitalism resting upon the right to private property. Homeownership is simultaneously the mark of freedom from the state and others, while also in equal measure being the mark of responsibility to both the community and the household.
Once you become a homeowner, the upkeep and maintenance are no longer the landlord’s responsibility but yours. When water comes through the ceiling, when the central heating goes down, when the power cuts out and the kids next door put a ball through your window, it’s your responsibility. You are now the commander of your keep, and your fortress does not stand alone but within a community, be it; a quiet village, a leafy town, a bustling suburb or a busy city. This community brings with it responsibilities associated with it too. The Covid-19 epidemic has shown, if nothing else, that in an age often mischaracterized as distant and cold, separated and hostile, that community not only has a place but it is tangible and real. While non-homeowners are not excluded from the community, it is the case that you become more rooted by owning your own home, both physically and emotionally in the area that you live.
I mention these dual responsibilities to household and community, for it is through the lens of responsibility, rather than the left-wing lens of rights, that conservatism is founded upon. This link between homeownership and conservatism translates into votes for the Conservative party. Analysis by Professor Tim Bale and Professor Paul Webb points to the Tories enjoying a 36% lead over Labour among homeowners compared to a 7% deficit among private sector renters (with social housing renters split almost evenly between the two parties). In 2019 this resulted in 86% of seats won by the Conservatives having homeownership levels exceeding that of the UK average level of homeownership, compared to only 26% for Labour. In simpler terms, ‘generation rent’ is not only a moral dilemma for conservatives; it is an existential threat to the long term viability of the Conservative Party.
It is a widely known fact that age correlates with the likelihood to vote Conservative. However, I would contend the relationship isn’t this linear. Instead, the actual relationship is between voting Conservative and homeownership. As the rates of homeownership naturally grow with age due to consolidation of wealth, it appears the principal indicator is purely age, whereas, in my estimation, age is merely a secondary rather than the primary motivator. This hypothesis carries weight, not only from an ideological standpoint but also when looking at the cross over point of ages more likely to vote Conservative, contrasting that to the average age of first-time buyers. In 2019 the Labour/Conservative crossover point occurred at 39 while the average age of a first-time buyer was 34, only five years prior. In any case, it’s clear the ideological grounds for homeownership leaning towards conservatism translates at the ballot box for the Conservative party, and as ‘generation rent’ becomes of age, it will become clear as to whether homeownership or age is the primary factor as voting habits shift.
It follows, therefore the recipe to electoral success is straightforward: enact policies that benefit homeownership and, in doing so, automatically increase peoples sense of responsibility and independence from the state. The issue is the interests of those current homeowners is juxtaposed to those of future homeowners, so a catch 22 opens up. It is in current homeowners interests for the housing market to continue on its never-ending rise, in stark contrast to those yet to become homeowners where the reverse is true.
Bring forward policies to increase homeownership, in particular mass house building, thereby reducing housing costs, and current homeowners who see their lifetime investments and pension funds drop will look to move their support elsewhere, most likely the Liberal Democrats. Conversely, bring forward policies to protect existing homeowners by limiting developments and tightening planning applications, ensuring their assets continue to rise, outstripping inflation and wage growth, and end up blocking future generations from finding their path to homeownership, threatening not only the party but conservatism itself in the near future.
Electorally then, it’s a tricky situation with no clear answer on maintaining support with the current voter base while keeping one eye on the future. It is an issue that has paralysed governments of all colours, but especially Conservative ones for the reasons I set out. However, when we look at the reality, both today and what the future brings, it’s clear both for the good of the country and long term viability of the party, we must prioritise those prospective homeowners, allowing them to buy a house and by extension a piece of society.
There is one slight hitch however, and that’s the words “long term”. The political system in this country is not built for the long term. Backbench MP’s at most are looking four years ahead, ministers get tossed between departments before they have time to hang their coat up, and voters award the sitting government for the outcomes of the day regardless of whether it was a result of a policy brought in by a previous administration or not. The long term, therefore, is rarely on the table in British politics and all the more to our detriment. However, there is hope. In 2019 politics reset, just as in 1997 and in 1983, the government party, for the first time in almost a decade, is not reliant on power-sharing agreements, coalitions or the loyalty of just a few rebellious Conservative MP’s. An 80 seat majority (give or take a by-election or two) provides the government with an opportunity to do what is rare in politics: to look long term.
Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy allowed thousands to own their own home, and other schemes like Rishi Sunaks 5% starter mortgage for first-time buyers have given many a helping hand, but in reality, both are sticking plasters. One of the most significant issues facing our country today comes down to two of the most boring words in the English Language. Planning Reform.
No two words in the English language say skip to the end or go to sleep quite like the words “planning reform”. But bear with me on this one because those two boring words are biggies.
The truth at its heart is a simple one: we have a chronic shortage of housing in this country. Everyone knows it, and for years most have been in favour of building more houses with just one caveat: “NOT IN MY BACK YARD!!!” Delays and appeals mean currently only half of local areas have a plan to build more homes, and a third of planning cases that go to appeal are overturned. Or, to put it more simply, an already broken system is buckling under the pressure.
The UK population is predicted to reach 72.4 million by mid-2043. An increase of just under six million from today. We build around 150,000 new homes a year at current rates, which means by 2043, we will have built only 3.3 million, around half of what we will need just to keep pace with our population. In other words, if we doubled the rate we produce houses tomorrow by 2043, we would have only just about kept our heads above water. We would have succeeded in not making the housing crisis worse, but we will not have made it any better either.
That is why it’s crucial to reform a system dreamt up in the aftermath of World War Two. It is why although planning reform may be a by-word for boredom, it is vital. Vital so younger generations, myself included, and generations yet to come can own their own homes not only on the Monopoly board but in reality. We have made do with patching up our old and crumbling planning system for decades, but the time has come to rip it all out and start again from scratch, assigning the notion of ‘generation rent’ to the history books.
Based on the Planning for the Future white paper published last year, the long-awaited Planning Bill was presented to parliament last week, delivering on a Conservative manifesto commitment. It aims to cut the time for housing plans to be developed and agreed upon from 7 years to 2.5 years. The government hopes to hit this impressive target by overhauling the seemingly impregnable web of planning processes with a transparent rules-based system twinned with a national levy to replace the current developer contribution system, notorious for its delays.
I referred earlier to the NIMBY brigade. There are, however, valid environmental and social concerns around reforming the planning system to speed up much-needed developments. While this reform cuts red tape, streamlining the process, it’s essential it still maintains the high standards we all expect. Environmentally all new homes will have to meet an environmental status dubbed ‘zero carbon ready’ by the government. Essentially it means that these homes would not need retrofitting to achieve the UK’s 2050 net-zero targets. Notably, there are fewer restrictions on building on brownfield sites, with special designated “growth zones”. This commitment will help protect our green spaces and reinvigorate our urban areas.
So do I believe these measures go fast and far enough? No. Do I believe planning reforms are the sole answer to the housing crisis? No. Nevertheless, is this reform a vital and critical step towards solving this issue? Yes.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have abandoned the young on this and following the Chesham and Amersham by-election defeat so have several twitchy MP’s with one eye on their slim majorities on the Conservative benches. We are lucky to have a Prime Minister who is unapologetic in his enthusiasm for infrastructure and levelling up. Let’s hope he means it because make no mistake, levelling up geographically will look like a walk in the park when compared to the real challenge of levelling up generationally begins; and begin with housing it must.