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14 May 2022

The Tories have fallen into a housing black hole of their own making

Tories find they can do nothing to improve the lot of those voters who don’t have housing wealth, for fear of upsetting those voters who do.

By Jonn Elledge

There’s been a run of these things recently. Ministers may seem gleefully complacent in precisely the manner you’d expect from a government that had not just lost 500 council seats in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis — but some on the lower rungs of the Tory hierarchy have noticed a problem. In op-eds and Twitter threads, the takes are piling up.

So it is that Thursday’s Daily Mail ran a column by Ben Lazarus headed, “If the Tories don’t help young voters like me get on the property ladder, I fear the roof may fall in on the party”. Its argument was an increasingly familiar one: the housing crisis is a block to both family formation and financial security, people won’t back capitalism if they can’t acquire capital, Tory governments past have expended a lot of effort trying to turn renters into owners. So, what gives?

Lazarus, when not being furious in the Mail, is an editor at the Spectator, in whose pages too you can frequently find this argument. Here’s one now, entitled “What reason is there for young people like me to vote Tory?” (The URL says it even more bluntly: “The Tories have given up on young people like me”.) Over in the Times, James Forsyth, whose work can normally be relied upon to be a decent reflection of how senior ministers see the world this week, spelled out the problem. “The housing crisis puts Tories in a death spiral.”

All this is very funny, in a “hey, that’s not the wallet inspector” kind of a way. But it’s been obvious that this would become a problem for a while. I don’t mean to sound smug, but I was writing about this issue eight years ago, literally to the day. Yet the party has done nothing.

Indeed, it’s made things worse. Its signature Help to Buy policy involved chucking more money at the housing market without increasing the number of homes on offer, which, predictably enough, served mainly to raise prices even further. Meanwhile planning reforms — of the sort that might actually increase building rates in those parts of the country where demand, and prices, are highest — have repeatedly been scaled back.

Why? Because both lowering house prices and increasing supply would take a long time, and would risk alienating existing Tory voters long before they created new ones. Where elections have turned on the question of builders vs Nimbys, as in Chesham & Amersham, the pro-building side has tended to lose.

And so, despite a succession of housing ministers looking sad and claiming that they sympathised, the government has done pretty much nothing that might risk solving the problem. This, at least, would explain the recent raft of housing policies that are as useless as any policy platform you’ve ever seen: a promise to look again at right-to-buy for housing association tenants (which is of no use most renters and anyway won’t work), and to introduce street votes on relaxing planning rules (which looks a lot like a Nimbys’ charter).

Talking a lot about the importance of home ownership while quietly backing policies that pushed it further and further out of reach has not, in the short term, caused the Tories problems. Indeed, as the young and asset-less have moved en masse to the urban or university seats which Labour was going to win anyway, the Tories have made unprecedented in-roads into Red Wall seats dominated by the older and more securely housed. In the short term, the strategy has worked.

But a housing policy based on boosterism doesn’t merely support the interests of one group of voters while ignoring another: it’s a zero-sum game, in which the interests of the two groups are directly and inevitably in conflict. And the thing about the short term is that it doesn’t last.

What this means is that a problem that has been coming down the tracks for years is now much closer, and much, much harder to solve. House prices have risen by more than 50 per cent since the Tories came to power, locking ever more people out of ownership. People priced out of cities are moving to suburban or commuter areas, taking their anti-Tory voting habits with them, and they’ll be voting a lot longer than the older generation in whose interests the Tories have governed. Still, the Tories find they can do nothing to improve the lot of those voters who don’t have housing wealth, for fear of upsetting those voters who do.

And so, even right-leaning young voters are beginning to ask what’s in it for them, and all their party has to offer them is a growing tax burden and the promise it won’t touch the housing wealth they don’t have. As the Blue Wall starts to crumble at last, they can’t say nobody warned them.

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