Why can't we just build some more houses? Image: Getty.
Show Hide image

The Tories want to give away houses to make sure we have enough houses

Black is white. War is peace. Madness is sanity.

Hey, guys, I've got this great new idea for sorting out Britain's defence problems. The British military is under-equipped, right? The biggest problem facing our boys is that they, basically, just don't have enough stuff.

So, here’s my plan for making sure the military does have enough equipment: we sell off all the equipment that it already has. But – and this is the clever part – we do it at a massive discount.

No, trust me, this is definitely going to work.

Because, with the money we get from those sales, we can then buy some new equipment, right? I mean, probably not as much as we had to start with, because we offered that discount to motivate sales. That is certainly a downside, I’ll admit.

But you can only play the cards you’re dealt, and as we all know, there's no money left. So, thanks to the mess that Labour left us in, the only way to guarantee we have a properly equipped military is to sell off all the equipment that the British military already has.

And that is my long-term economic plan for Britain's hardworking soldiers.

Okay, so, nobody seriously thinks that this is a sensible military procurement strategy. And yet, in a different sphere of public life, “giving stuff away to make sure you have enough stuff” is an entirely respectable position, despite the fact it implies a level of economic illiteracy that should get you banned from so much as entering a branch of Tesco.

Yesterday, the Sunday Times confirmed that the Tories were, as a key plank of their manifesto, consider a massive ramping up of the right-to-buy. That, you’ll recall, was an iconic Thatcher era policy under which council tenants were given an automatic right to purchase their homes at a massive discount, and which has had absolutely no downsides in the 30 years since.

The point of the policy was to turn Britain into a "property-owning democracy", and it was, at heart, a political move. It worked on the assumption that people who own homes are more likely to vote Conservative than people who live in council houses. So, if you’re a Tory, you want more of the former, and fewer of the latter.

That, someone clearly thinks, still applies. Somebody in the Tory hierarchy has looked at which voters the party needs to win over to stay in government, looked at the fact there's a housing crisis, and put two and two together to make the square root of minus one.

Now, the party's manifesto will reportedly include an extension of the right-to-buy to cover tenants living in housing association (HA) properties. The proceeds of these sales, unlike the proceeds of past right-to-buy transactions, would be ploughed back into extra housing. In other words, it amounts to making sure we have enough tanks by selling off all our tanks.

There are so many problems with this policy that you’d think at least one of them would have come up in the discussions at CCHQ. One is that it HAs aren't actually an arm of government, so the government is promising to sell things it doesn’t actually own. It can probably find a way of making them do so anyway, but the bills that’ll result from the resulting legal wrangling seem an odd sort of thing to prioritise right now.

Another problem is that the policy will haemorrhage money, since that discount basically amounts to the state giving individual tenants a bung. "Sources" claim it'll eat into the housing benefit bill; that sounds optimistic to me, but even if it does, it will have done so by handing out houses to a lucky few, and as a British taxpayer who isn't being offered a subsidised house I feel a bit miffed about that.

And that is the biggest problem here: never mind the fact it’ll generate less cash that it costs us, or the fact that if the Tories really wanted to get the state building houses again they’ve had five years in which to do that. Consider the political ramifications.

Reuters report over the weekend said that the policy was “aiming to sway voters who are struggling to buy a house”. Now I know quite a lot of voters who'd describe themselves that way, and at least some of them would probably be open to a touch of electorally bribery. Extending right-to-buy to them would be a massive vote winner.

So why is nobody doing so? Because those people, some 9m of them, live in the private rented sector, over which the government has even less control than it does over housing associations. Those people would love the right to buy a house – but nobody is coming forward to give them one.

Because the problem with Britain’s housing market is not that HA tenants can’t buy their own homes. It’s that we need to build more bloody houses.

Still, I'm sure private renters will be delighted to see a future Tory government handing out subsidised houses like sweets to those who were lucky enough to be living in them at the time. It’s quite clear to me now that the only way to make sure we have enough houses is to give away houses. Black is white. War is peace. Madness is sanity.

That makes sense, right? Right?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496