As her Brexit speech last week reminded us, Theresa May is a tortoise politician, not a hare politician. Her modus operandi is inching forwards – covering her pro-Brexit wing by dangling a right to diverge, in this case; satisfying her anti-Brexit one by declaring an intention to align (in most instances). As with Brexit, so with housing. And her constituency experience has made her even more cautious about it than she might otherwise have been.
Her majority in Maidenhead is now over 26,000. But the seat was fairly recently viewed as – believe it or not – a marginal. In 2001, May was re-elected there with a majority of just over 3000. Remember the Liberal Democrat “decapitation strategy”? She saw the yellow challenge off in 2005, but not without hard work – and a bit of a scare. Housing and planning were sensitive issues in the constituency, as in most of the greater South-East. May brushed aside the old convention that, since MPs have no responsibility for planning, they shouldn’t get involved in it. She was anxious to keep her constituents onside by reflecting their reflexive suspicion of new development.
This instinct was carried over into Government and eventually into Downing Street. Ministers say that she has been known to ask why new housing can’t be concentrated outside the home counties – a view with which some of our readers will sympathise. It was thus startling to hear her declare, in her speech to the Conservative Conference last October, that she “will dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem”. The reason for the shift in emphasis was obvious. If you don’t have a stake in capital yourself, you’re less likely to vote fo a capitalist party. The collapse of home ownership among younger voters was mirrored last summer by a drop in Tory voting among them. The figures for 24s-35s are almost as bad as those for 18s-24s.
Her speech on housing tomorrow will contain at least three main components – new carrots and further sticks for local councils on housebuilding numbers; making it easier to build upwards, and news of at least two new garden cities. Ministers are out and about rolling the pitch in today’s papers. Sajid Javid is interviewed in the Sunday Times. Dominic Raab writes in the Mail on Sunday. There remains the question of land banking. Oliver Letwin is reviewing whether and how use-it-or-lose-it measures might work – and other ideas – but his task force doesn’t report until the autumn, so don’t expect announcements that pre-empt him tomorrow.
Some Ministers say that May has moved slowly on local councils and housebuilding numbers. There is no sign yet that Downing Street has engaged with Nick Boles’s ideas on compulsory purchase and public sector land. Since HCLG doesn’t expect to hit its target of building 300,000 houses a year, it follows that such measures, or others on a similar scale, are needed if that is to change. Significantly, Boles, Mark Prisk – a former Housing Minister – and John Penrose joined together recently to press for more building upwards.
May once poked fun at George Osborne’s image-conscious ploy of touring building sites in a hard hat. But the former Chancellor knew what he was doing. He was presenting himself as being on the side of hard work and social progress. The Prime Minister will need to throw a chunk of her caution to the winds if housebuilding is to speed up. She must also find ways of dramaticising her commitment to housing growth if she is to dedicate her premiership in the way she promised: no easy task, given the dominating presence of Brexit.