If any ConservativeHome readers are also GB News viewers, then I must apologise for any distress caused by my appearance on last night’s instalment of Dewbs & Co alongside John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former director of political operations.
Judging by the avalanche of outrage pouring into the GB Views inbox whilst we were on air, not to mention the state of my Twitter @s this morning, our double act proved quite upsetting. I can only offer my assurances that I do not usually get booked alongside New Labour apparatchiks expecting to agree with them.
Unfortunately, it is simply the case that in current conditions the case for a bedroom tax on private homes is strong enough that we could both make it.
I suspect, at this point, that I have already lost the room. But hear me out.
At present, we have a massive shortage of housing. House prices have grown much faster than incomes, and now in places such as London rents are spiking too. Younger voters are taking much longer to get onto the property ladder, if they can do it at all without parental assistance, whilst people who bought relatively recently face a cost-of-living squeeze as they renew their mortgages and get locked in to higher rates.
The current planning system empowers vocal and active minorities to block development, both directly by lodging objections and indirectly by lobbying their local councillors and their MP, and doesn’t create adequate pressure in the other direction, creating chronic under-supply.
Overall, the result is a system that works very well for people who bought into it decades ago, and not really for anyone else.
In these circumstances, the basic case for a bedroom tax is pretty much exactly the same as when the Government introduced it for council properties: trying to incentivise more efficient use of scarce housing stock by encouraging people who no longer need family-sized homes to move out of them.
Such a policy is obviously easier to justify on left-wing grounds. McTernan’s argument, which you can watch in full in the clip below, is that it would basically function as a wealth tax on people’s adventitious property fortunes. (Although since it would presumably be paid by new homeowners too, I’m not sure that actually works.)
For Conservatives, on the other hand, it is certainly an uncomfortable prospect. Respect for private property has been a pillar of the Party’s platform for more or less as long as it has existed.
But even viewed from right-wing principles, there is a tension between allowing people to simultaneously meddle extensively in other people’s property rights through the planning system and privately bank the profits of soaring house prices.
There is a coherent position where your property is your own, its value yours to enjoy, and it is none of the State’s business what you do with it – but in that, the same is true of the land on the edge of town bought by a developer (or your neighbour who likes growing large, sun-blocking trees, for that matter).
Likewise there is a consistent framework where we accept that housing is an issue that impacts the whole community, so local residents have a stake in decisions. But that framework also cuts both ways, because the same common interest that gives you a legitimate interest in new developments likewise gives the community a legitimate interest in the under-occupation of your house.
As a Conservative, I much prefer the first option. Private property is good! Unfortunately the current system, which privatises the gains and socialises the costs of the housing shortage, is very popular.
That’s why my position, which I first floated on CapX a couple of years ago, is that the nation, or some smaller local government unit, should be forced to choose between them; either choose a proper private property system, or accept a two-way community interest in efficiently distributing limited housing stock.
Personally I suspect (hope?) that the nation would choose the first option; at the very least, it would be interesting to learn how many people were prepared to defend the sanctity of the green belt when the price was potentially their own home, rather than just the housing prospects of others.
Thank you for listening. You may now draft the angry emails and get to work in the comments.
'If we say people in council houses should pay a bedroom tax for under-occupying. Let's have a proper bedroom tax in the private sector.’@JohnMcTernan suggests a bedroom tax on privately owned homes to ease pressure on the housing market.— GB News (@GBNEWS) January 23, 2023
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