Anthony Breach is a Senior Analyst at Centre for Cities, where he leads on housing and planning.
England is not the only country facing a housing crisis. Around the world – and particularly the English-speaking parts of it – inflexible planning red-tape is reducing housebuilding, and pushing housing costs up and homeownership out of reach for young people.
From New Zealand to Montana, centre-right politicians can be found pushing for planning reform and pulling ahead in the polls. Making it easier to build so that more is built is central to any credible proposal to bring housing costs down, and voters reward political parties that make the case for these supply-side reforms.
So, what lessons do conservatives around the world have on housing and planning for Conservatives in the United Kingdom?
At the front of the pack is Pierre Poilievre, the Leader of Canada’s Conservatives. Poilievre has made housing a key dividing line between the Tories and Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Government. House prices in Canada have soared over the past decade, and a recent spike in rents has prompted the Trudeau Government to suggest a crackdown on foreign students.
Poilievre uses housing to make both politics and policy. High housing costs and lacklustre rates of housebuilding in Canada under Trudeau’s watch are key parts of Poilievre’s critique. His solution is to push for planning reform and a crackdown on Nimby city governments.
As Canada is a federal country, Poilievre cannot directly change planning rules on the ground. Instead, Poilievre is promising that local government “gatekeepers” that fail to meet their housing targets will have federal funding withdrawn, and pushing for cities to change their planning rules to approve pockets of dense housing around federally-funded railway, tram, and subway stations.
So far, it seems to be working politically. Since Poilievre announced his programme to get cities building more in April, the Conservatives have pulled away from the Liberals in the polls. Now that they are now the most trusted party on housing in Canada, the Conservatives are leading with 40 per cent of the millennial vote.
However, Poilievre is so far resisting proposals to release land in Canada’s green belts around its cities for new homes – possibly storing up housing problems for a future Conservative government.
On the other side of the world is New Zealand. Similar to Canada, New Zealand has more space and a smaller population than England but a terrible housing crisis, with one of the worst ratios of house prices to incomes in the developed world. The centre-right is also in opposition in New Zealand, with an election just around the corner.
Unlike Canada though, New Zealand has already begun a big push for planning reform that is already delivering results, and which enjoyed bipartisan support – at least initially.
Back in 2016, Auckland, the biggest city in New Zealand, passed a new local plan. This plan upzoned the city, replacing the planning rules that only allowed new detached houses and covered most of Auckland. The new rules instead allowed – not mandated – a wider range of new semi-detached, terraced, and small apartment buildings on the same plots.
Five years later, Auckland had five per cent more homes that its prior trend would have produced. Average rents after inflation had fallen by 2 per cent, and for those on low incomes, they had fallen by six per cent. House prices didn’t drop, but they grew by 20 per cent compared to 70 per cent across the rest of New Zealand.
Both of New Zealand’s main parties then decided to take Auckland’s so-called townhouse approach to cities nationwide. Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government, with the support of the centre-right National Party, rolled out these same changes to the five biggest cities in the country, along with measures to zone for six-storey flats around railway stations, similar to Poilievre’s approach in Canada.
Since then, however, the bipartisan approach to housing has been scrambled. The Nationals have walked back their previous support of applying the townhouse rules in every big city, and now say that Kiwi cities should be allowed to opt-out if they can show that they are zoning enough greenfield land to meet housing demand for 30 years.
Nevertheless, the National Party insist that they are still committed to increasing housebuilding, and they have recently pulled ahead of the Labour Party before next month’s election. Although they continue to support six-storey flats near railway stations, it has been suggested that arguments for new suburban homes were always likely to make inroads against New Zealand’s attempt to rely solely on densification to drive housebuilding.
In Montana, the situation is different: the Republican Party is already and solidly in power. But housing demand in Montana is rising not just because of a booming local economy. Domestic migration matters; other Americans are moving to cities in Montana from parts of the US where housing shortages are much worse, such as California.
And although there are some similarities in the five bills it passed – semi-detached homes in urban residential zones were legalised state-wide in one bill, and building around urban transit stations – Montana also has a unique approach. The ‘Yimby Omnibus’ bill presented 15 possible planning reforms to local government, and required them to implement at least five.
Republicans in Montana were able to do this by flipping the script. Led by the Frontier Institute, a Montana thinktank, local conservatives argued for planning reform by attacking ‘California-style’ red-tape stopping new homes in and near cities. So far, this approach has proved popular – it won over local urbanist groups and even secured bipartisan support for the planning reform bills from Montana Democrats.
So what does this all mean for Conservatives in England?
First, planning reform is unavoidable. Even leaving aside the UK’s missing 4.3 million homes that are needed just to catch up with historic population growth, a failure to reform when everybody else is cracking on will damage the relative competitiveness of the UK as an English-speaking economy.
All of these Anglosphere jurisdictions have zoning systems that make it much easier to both build houses and navigate the politics of housing – we should have a similar zoning system too.
Second, the housing crisis is urban. The three places above all have more land than England, and centre-right politicians are making different choices as to whether to build more suburbs or in them.
But all are agreed on overruling local governments to get more homes built in reach of expensive cities, and the challenge is the same for us too. Overcoming the planning bottlenecks councils impose on housebuilding in the places where jobs growth is high – especially in and near London – is the supply-side reform the housing crisis needs.
Third, building around stations is an easy planning reform win. We should do the same here – in England, roughly two million suburban homes could be built around railway and tube stations 45 minutes from England’s five biggest city centres, on less than two per cent of the green belt.
And finally, the arguments need to match the scale of the problem. The politicians above are all pushing to increase housebuilding above historic levels in multiple urban areas in one go. These reforms are tough and have met pushback, but they are popular as they are big enough to credibly show how the centre-right will improve housing affordability for everyone.
In England, we are not quite seeing changes on the scale we need. The Government is currently trying to densify parts of London, get Cambridge to grow, and remove the nutrient neutrality bottleneck that Natural England imposed in specific river valleys. Although these efforts are welcome, this patchwork approach within our dysfunctional system is probably not going to be enough to solve the housing crisis or unlock all of the political rewards of doing so.
Treating housing as a priority matters for the young voters for whom housing is the priority. Conservative parties around the Anglosphere win their support when they push for their interest – building more houses and planning reform.