The Housing Crisis Could Destroy the Conservative Party | Nye Steele
When Boris Johnson recently reshuffled his Cabinet, he made Michael Gove, his former friend and rival, the Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Although this role may seem insignificant, it is possibly the most important in the government, at least for the Tory party’s long-term electoral prospects.
This is due to Britain’s infamous housing crisis, a crisis that Gove is now responsible for dealing with and one which, crucially for the Tories, means that the chances of most young people ever becoming homeowners are small. Due to the almost complete lack of affordable housing, Millennials are half as likely to own a home at the age of 30 than Baby Boomers were. At the beginning of the 1980s, it would have taken a typical couple in their late twenties around three years to save for a deposit on a house. Today, it would take nineteen.
This is, electorally speaking, very dangerous for the Tories. It’s unlikely to threaten their chances at the next election, but if they don’t take any action on housing whilst in office, they risk being locked out of power for an entire generation. There is a clear, and well documented, link between home ownership and conservatism. Homeowners have a clear, material stake in society, an attachment to the present that makes them far less likely to support revolution or radical change.
The other reason why not dealing with the housing crisis is a recipe for electoral disaster for the Tories is because of the link between home owning and a factor that is also key to conservatism: family formation. Homeowners are more likely to have children than non-homeowners, and having children greatly increases one’s chances of becoming a conservative. The most plausible reason for this is that it makes people feel part of a social and moral order that extends backwards into the past and forwards into the future. This inspires a gratitude for what already exists, and a desire to see it preserved and passed on to the next generation.
Those sceptical of the view that the Tories face losing power if action isn’t taken on the housing crisis might cite the claim, falsely attributed to Churchill, that ‘if you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart’ but ‘if you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain’. This would be nice, if it wasn’t such utter nonsense. There is no evidence whatsoever that the majority of young people today, deprived of the chance to own a home and start a family, will ever turn into conservatives.
So why, if their long-term electoral fortunes depend on it, have the Tories made so few changes to housing policy? The problem is twofold. On the one hand, it is about incentives. In the short term, building more houses is likely to drive many traditional Tory, ‘NIMBY’ (stands for ‘not in my backyard’) voters from the Home Counties away from the parties. Just look at the results of the Chesire and Amersham by-election from June. A Tory safe seat since its inception in the mid-1970s, it was won by the Liberal Democrats, who made opposition to house building, and more specifically, the government’s proposed Planning Bill, a central part of their election campaign.
On the other hand, there is also another factor preventing the government from tackling Britain’s housing crisis. This is what UnHerd’s Peter Franklin, paraphrasing Gove, has called ‘the housing blob’. These are the people involved in the control of the land supply, the developers, the consultants, the lawyers and financiers, who all have vested interests in not solving the housing crisis. Unfortunately, these are also the people who, according to Transparency International, were responsible for 20% of the Conservate Party’s donations between 2010 and 2020.
The ‘housing blob’ is the reason why, for so long, all the policies that have tried to tackle the housing crisis have been based on the assumption that not enough homes are being built because local councils won’t allow them to be built. However, this doesn’t explain why, according to the Local Government Association, over a million houses that already have planning permission haven’t been built.
The reason that so many housing developers are sitting on empty plots of land, despite the fact that they have planning permission to build on them, is because, according to Franklin, housing developers, ‘having purchased the land on which they say they want to build’ would ‘lose money if its value fell’. This means that they have ‘every incentive to ration supply to local housing markets’.
This means that the housing crisis isn’t mainly caused by electoral pressure on the Tories from NIMBY voters in the Home Counties, or by frustratingly bureaucratic local councils (although both of these are significant factors). It’s much more to do with the stranglehold land developers, and big business and moneyed interests in general, have gained over the modern Conservative Party.
It’s grimly ironic that those who stand to lose the most from increased home-ownership have so much power in the Conservative Party, who are supposedly in favour of what both Macmillan and Thatcher called a ‘property-owning democracy’. But this reflects the fact that, for most Conservative politicians, a slavish devotion to neoliberal economics and large, multinational corporations has largely replaced adherence to conservative values.
Cynics, and dyed-in-the-wool leftists, might contend that this has always been the case. ‘Conservative values’, their argument goes, were never anything more than a smokescreen for the true purpose of right-wing politics; the preservation and perpetuation of suffering and oppression. However, this is a myopic and naive view of conservatism that ignores its huge ideological complexity and diversity.
There is, in fact, a long strain of right-wing thought that is deeply sceptical of the idea that market growth and private wealth accumulation should take precedence over all other political concerns – such as the environment, communities and, crucially in the case of housing policy, families. This is rooted in Edmund Burke’s insistence that capitalism should remain subordinated to the conservative social ethic, and it runs through 19th century activists and politicians such as the ‘Tory Radical’ Robert Oastler and, most famously, Benjamin Disraeli.
A version of this kind of market sceptical conservatism also runs through Catholic distributionists such as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and in the 20th century, it could be found in the writings of Russell Kirk and Roger Scruton. In the present day, it can be found in the ideas of people such as Philip Blonde and Peter Hitchens.
All of these thinkers have understood that if free-market capitalism is held sacrosanct over all other values, it will not only have vast, detrimental effects on families, communities and society as a whole, it will also undermine the free market itself, allowing powerful, multinational corporations and wealthy oligarchs to gain monopolies over both the market and the political system.
If the Tories want to solve the housing crisis, let alone stand a chance of governing in the long run, they might have to start listening.