Following Labour’s decision to score a point off the Government over nutrient neutrality rather than back a perfectly sensible reform, the odds on any Starmer Government making meaningful progress on the housing crisis have surely lengthened considerably.
They still might. Tactically, it makes a lot of sense for Labour to drive through housebuilding in Conservative constituencies (just as it made sense for the Tories to do so in Labour-voting cities, though they lacked the imagination and the courage to do it).
The so-called Blue Wall is already trending younger as London’s spiralling house prices and rent crisis see it radiate voters out into the commuter belt; lots of housebuilding around dormitory towns and rail connections would accelerate this process and cement these gains, and the MPs of the leafy shires could only howl in impotent fury from the opposition benches.
It makes financial sense too. As I wrote on Wednesday, one of the major challenges Sir Keir Starmer is going to have to grapple with is how to keep his party (and the voters) happy when there is relatively little cash to throw around.
But planning reform could be a genuine magic money tree. The value gain when land is granted planning permission is enormous. Combine an ambitious and effective programme for driving up permissions (i.e. development orders issued under Section 59 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990) with some means of capturing a chunk of that value (e.g. a one-off windfall tax on the uplift at the point of sale) and you’re basically making free money.
That isn’t an entire solution, of course. You also need to make sure the houses actually get built, and reduce the vast range of hoop-jumps and uncertainties that end up baked into the sale price of houses (happily, you can do that with development orders too).
But it’s all doable, and you’d think that the trifecta of ready cash, progress on a major national crisis, and skewing the electoral geography in your favour would be more than enough cheese on the trap.
Alas, no. If there’s one thing writing about this subject teaches one, it’s that there is no guarantee that politicians will grasp, or at least act on, such strategic concerns. Witness the Conservatives allowing the social processes which historically created new conservatives to be choked off, one by one, whilst allowing their housing policy to be set by Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers, two MPs for London marginals who squeaked home in a year when the Tories won an 80-seat majority and are doomed, even if they block every single home.
The problem is that building a substantial number of houses anywhere – even places that don’t vote for you – is going to involve being shouted at, and getting some bad headlines, and our current crop of politicians seem extraordinarily unwilling to face down even the most unrepresentative of lobbies, so long as it is increasingly vocal.
Robert Colvile of the Centre for Policy Studies has provided a good breakdown of why Labour’s decision to block the nutrient neutrality reforms (which as Ant Breach of Centre for Cities points out, have never been voted on and aren’t very good). But the nub of the problem is this:
“And the fact that they are pretending that there is some perfect, painless form of triangulation that can miraculously keep everyone happy – and that the foolish government are foolish fools for not realising this – does not fill me with confidence.”
This is no worse than Rishi Sunak chuntering on about wanting to solve the housing crisis but “empower local communities” (to block housing). But we’ve seen how he’s doing on housing, and it is no better. There is no capital-s Sensible way to solving the housing crisis; it is the product of the current consensus and the power of lobbies and stakeholders, and you can’t break that stalemate without upsetting somebody.
That need not, to a government with the will to govern and a clear-eyed grasp of its strategic interests, be a problem. There is a world of difference between coming under actual pressure and being shouted out by people with no leverage, even if too many MPs today appear unable to tell the difference. Bold action in year one could see swathes of outer London and the Home Counties more-or-less planted by year five, and the Government enriched in the process.
But that does not seem to be Starmer’s instinct; it is certainly not his style. Instead, we look set for another five years of the doomed quest for the magical, Grown-Up solution, the one that delivers lots of positive change without inflicting any negative change (real or perceived) on those defending the status quo.