Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
When the eye-watering net migration figures dropped two weeks ago, one of my first thoughts was: where on earth are they all going to live?
We talk of crises so often that the word no longer holds its meaning. But when a month’s rent on a poky studio flat in Barking now sets you back upwards of £1,200, it’s pretty clear we have reached that point.
Yes, that is the South-East. And, no, no one is forcing anyone to live in Barking, or London for that matter. But this problem is certainly no longer isolated to the traditionally pricey areas of the country.
The average house price is now roughly nine times the typical salary, according to the Office for National Statistics; with the rise in mortgage costs, it’s hardly surprising the average prospective buyer expects they will be unable to buy their first home until they are 37 years old.
The social and economic consequences of being priced out of the property market later into life are considerable – not least when it comes to raising a family.
It’s totally bewildering, then, that at the same time as successive Conservative governments have continued New Labour’s legacy of large-scale immigration, they are unwilling to make the reforms needed to afford people already here the housing they so desperately need.
It’s like we’re living in groundhog day. Once again Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary, has been forced to “compromise” on his attempts to boost house-building due to backbench pressure; this time, it’s house-building targets for local areas.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will now make it clear that house building targets are “advisory” rather than mandatory. This small but damaging amendment is the result of 60 MPs, led by Chipping Barnet’s Theresa Villiers and the Isle of Wight’s Bob Seely, threatening to vote against the Government.
This change in wording may seem minor, but it is a short-sighted capitulation to those MPs and communities who don’t fancy more development in their area – one that could have a devastating impact across the country.
On the surface, Seely and Villiers sound reasonable. In a column for the Daily Telegraph, they say they want a “community-led” planning system that “protects their local environment” and delivers homes in “a sustainable way”.
We all want this in theory, but given the near absence of affordable housing in large parts of the country, and with the current rate of immigration (which of course they fail to mention), it can no longer be an option to hold back housebuilding.
In reality, making “advisory” targets subject to local circumstances is pretty much the same as scrapping targets altogether. The new rules, which will allow local communities to build fewer homes than needed if they can show they would significantly change the “character of an area” will mean more power to NIMBY opposition, fewer homes being built, and rents and house prices continuing to rocket.
Now, I do have some sympathy with MPs who represent constituencies where people are hostile to new development, particularly when the buildings are an eyesore and when local infrastructure, from schools to GP practices, are already failing to keep up with demand. It is also the case that centrally-dictated, top-down targets are not the natural choice of many liberal-minded conservatives.
But it’s also true that we haven’t built enough homes in this country since the Macmillan government. And one of the main reasons we haven’t is the lack of government appetite to stand up to those who wish to oppose anything they don’t like from being built in their back yard.
The scrapping of mandatory housing targets represents yet another triumph for those people, but a loss for those struggling to afford their rent or struggling to get on the property ladder.
While many of us would certainly like developments to be in-keeping with their surrounding area, this ongoing battle within the Tory ranks hardly inspires confidence in the government reaching its target of 300,000 new homes a year, something Gove insists won’t be affected by the change.
It makes me wonder when, if ever, some Conservative MPs will wake up and realise that sweeping the monumental issue of housing under the carpet is no longer an option. Perhaps it won’t be until it’s their children and grandchildren who can’t afford anywhere to live that the penny finally drops.
And if they don’t want more development in their patch, perhaps they should remind the Government it was elected to reduce immigration, not increase it to record levels whilst refusing to ensure the homes we need get built.