Bob Seely is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for the Isle of Wight.
One of the most upsetting experiences of the last year’s general election was the desperation of young people in my constituency of the Isle of Wight when telling me that they were unable to afford somewhere to live.
Last month, a new conservative think tank, Onward, was launched with the remit to develop ideas for a new political generation. There are several other newcomers too, such as Freer and Bright Blue as well as traditional stalwarts, like Policy Exchange and the Centre for Policy Studies. Today, I am giving them a challenge: solve our housing crisis.
A winning housing strategy is a moral good, and a critical area of ‘retail’ policy. It’s one of three policy areas – health and education are the other two – that will help decide the next election. It’s a salutary lesson to remember that Conservatives are struggling with voters under 49 years of age.
We have got to get on with delivery a domestic agenda. Here’s the background: nationally, the housing system we have had for the past 20 years is broken. On the island, it fails us miserably. I’m using my constituency as an example, but I could equally be talking about everywhere from national park constituencies to inner-city seats. All of us desperately need a sustainable model which gives flexibility to local communities to choose the best mix of private and public development.
The current system:
On the island, we have a target of just over 640 homes a year. This is unpopular and unrealistic. I have told government as such. There is little confidence that those homes will be for islanders. Shockingly, during the past three years, less than 100 ‘affordable’ properties have been built. Our housing waiting list is 3,000.
On the island, we need starter and shared equity homes, as well as specialised housing for old folks. Nationally, but especially in island communities like mine, we need to offer young people a chance to live somewhere near where they grew up.
For the island, I want a target closer to 300 homes, but I want the ‘social’ proportion of those homes to be much higher. I want to halve the overall target but increase – by a factor of ten – the ‘social’ element. How to achieve this? We need alternatives to the existing funding model. The case for economic liberalism needs to be recognised but, for me, it comes second to the need for social need and social justice.
It seems to me there is a central fact in the housing debate which Conservatives find difficult to accept, but which we need to grasp: relying on the private sector to provide in the current, heavily controlled system has never worked. As my colleague Nick Boles has shown, since 1947, whenever we have built 250,000 or more homes in a year, 100,000 have been built by the state or housing associations.
Therefore, the answer is either to liberalise the system, or drive it more efficiently, and encourage community and council activism.
As you may guess, I am not in favour of the first option; easing planning law to allow greenfield development. Frankly, I’d like it all but banned. On the island, it would simply overwhelm us. But there is more that the Government can coherently do to allow councils and others to make the housing framework fit for purpose.
So what are the objectives and principles we need? Probably these: maximise current land use and building use, allow for liberal change of use in previously developed areas, allow significant local flexibility and see ‘social’ housing – which needs defining – as a moral good, factor a pricing mechanism for it and prioritise building for local people in some areas.
We need to find an answer to problems such as landbanking – where developers sit on land rather than develop. State powers to force sale or use are weak. Small but ambitious councils like ours fear the risk of taking on landlords through the courts. The process needs to be made easier and cheaper for councils to do the right thing for their communities.
Grants for small housebuilders are welcome, but they are focused on infrastructure to ‘unlock’ – i.e. bulldoze – greenfield sites which just add to the overcrowded road system. Instead, let’s have incentives for developing properties above shops and in town centres, keeping people in existing communities and helping high streets compete against online and out-of-town shopping. We should also require councils to develop plans to ensure empty or vacant homes are developed prior to granting permission for greenfield sites. There are at least 1,500 empty properties on the island. We need to reimpose presumption of brownfield development.
Can government require councils to prove they are maximising land use? For example, in the middle of Newport, our county town, are two large, single-story M&S and Morrisons buildings next to each other – effectively two giant bungalows. They represent an appalling use of land. Why didn’t we build one or two storys of housing on top?
The good news is that some change is happening. New forms of share equity called Rent Plus, where you rent for a period of time and then own outright, are promising. Community land trusts encourage sustainable development. There are some grants for small-scale building. People on the island would be happy to see half a dozen homes built in every village. What they don’t want are developers bulldozing 100 acres of farmland. Councils should be allowed to borrow to support these small-scale developments. If that means ‘council housing’, let’s do it.
Councils seen to put communities first will be on to a winning policy; any Government that enables it, likewise.
As part of the new sustainable model of development, the island needs buy-back schemes whereby housing, especially bungalows, can be purchased by housing associations and repurposed, perhaps by adding a second story to create two properties or build a small terrace or semidetached where the bungalow was, helping the Island to meet targets by gently increasing density without eating into our precious landscape.
Finally, we need an evolution of attitudes at the Treasury. Let’s see social purpose behind land use. It is not good enough to see land purely in terms of financial gain. When the MoD and other Government departments sell land, they need to put a social value on it. Nick Timothy had the right idea about social conservatism. We have to recognise the value of community; modern conservatives should be about reconciling this with free markets to deliver the best of both worlds.
These ideas and others need to be wrapped into a policy packages tailored to the varied constituencies in Britain. More than any other policy, I believe the political prize for unveiling a credible and coherent, community-first approach to housing will be victory at the next general election.
I don’t believe in Tory paternalism, but I do believe in moving from a Gradgrindian, economic liberal approach – which is shot to pieces by tight planning laws anyway – to a conservative approach that sees housing in terms of community building rather than target chasing. After all, politicians exist serve to serve people rather than ideologies.