Georgia L Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.
Covid aside, if one single issue proves the ineffectiveness of the Johnson administration, it is housing.
Back in 2020, the then housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s plans to overhaul Britain’s outdated planning system were frustrated by MPs more concerned with protecting the pay packets of blue-voting boomers than securing a decent future for their grandchildren.
Long before Jenrick’s fall from grace in last September’s reshuffle, it was clear that the Government intended to do little useful with its 80-plus majority in the House of Commons, whether or not it risked breaking the 2019 manifesto’s pledge to build 300,000 new homes a year by the middle of the following decade.
But now Johnson’s political lifespan is also nearing its end, his wannabe successors seem to have fallen prey to the same declinist instincts.
First, it is important to highlight just how pressing the issue is. As data from the Land Registry shows, the average cost of purchasing a house in the 1990s was approximately £57,000. Prices have now quadrupled to around £237,000, while income has merely tripled. In London, where a disproportionate chunk of coveted graduate roles are based, a deposit alone will leave buyers a hefty £130,357 down- just short of double the total value of the three-bedroom house my parents’ mortgaged in 2003.
Meanwhile, the lack of housing supply also continues to pile pressure on the renting sector where average prices have rocketed by 17 per cent since 2019.
Is it any surprise that one-quarter of 18 to 35-year-olds are considering migrating to make owning a home more realistic? Or that of the 80 per cent of people in this age bracket who have been able to begin saving for a deposit, one-third believe they will never reach their saving target? If prospective Prime Ministers care anything for the UK’s demographic future, they will act immediately to build more houses and bring down property prices.
On Thursday, former chancellor Rishi Sunak announced his plans to staunchly “protect” the Green Belt if Tory members make him leader. The wealthy MP has vowed to craft the upcoming planning law reforms to block councils from requesting green belt boundaries be compromised in order to free up more land for property development, and that planners will be forced to outright reject such plans.
This is clearly a desperate attempt by his floundering campaign to get older property-owning members onside. Despite spending weeks attempting to position himself as a sensible financial manager- already ironic given the wartime levels of spending, he greenlit throughout the pandemic – Sunak seems determined to convey his disconnect with reality.
Not only is this yet another attempt to pander to the elderly, but it is ecologically nonsensical. Just 6 per cent of British land is built up, and a measly 1 per cent of the Green Belt has been encroached upon since 2006. These belts do not protect vast swathes of our isles’ idyllic rolling hills and heather, but mandate a metaphorical and cartographic noose around the necks of our urban centres.
This is easy to gather from a passing glance at this map of England’s green belt areas. If Sunak truly cared for protecting our “precious” countryside he would scrap these archaic limits and transfer their iron-clad protections to our national parks and AONBs.
The green belt’s stranglehold on building restrictions is a key factor in the soaring housing costs that price the next generation out of housing, and make lives more difficult for low-income individuals and families forced to fritter away their dwindling pay packets into the bank accounts of greedy landlords.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who continues to outpace her ex-Cabinet colleague in grassroots support, has not done much to outshine her rival on housing policy.
Earlier this month she criticised the statutory duty of councils to identify sites for potential housing development. She even bizarrely blasted nationwide housing targets as ”Stalinist”, an interesting take given her own party’s commitment to such targets ahead of their landslide general election win less than three years ago. It is even odder for those of us who recall Truss’ 2019 rallying cry for the constriction of 1 million new houses in current Green Belt areas.
Just as Sunak scrambles for backers among the landed gerontocracy, Truss is eager to go out all guns blazing against an imagined Bolshevik bureaucracy, without backing up her ideas with a concrete alternative.
While Truss has thankfully said she intends to relax planning laws – something she has been on record as supporting since at least 2018 –it is likely that backbenchers- already emboldened by their toppling of Johnson- are even more likely to successfully shut down such plans, as they were in 2020. It will take tremendous courage and grit to draw up serious planning liberalisation plans, and push them past her own MPs, if Truss intends to get a grip on Britain’s housing chaos.
Yet with the next general election currently just two years away, neither candidate’s brainwaves will have time to bear significant fruit before voters take to the polls. With war in Ukraine and a cost of living crisis rumbling on, structural issues such as housing, health, and energy reform may once again take a back seat as whichever administration comes to pass once again focuses on the immediate term.