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  1. Election 2024
30 September 2019

On housing, the Conservatives can’t work out whose party they want to be

The party talks about wanting to win over first-time buyers, but its policies consistently favour existing homeowners.

By Stephen Bush

One step forward, one step back? The Conservatives have announced a mixed package of housing policies if they can win a majority at the next election. 

The good: loosening of planning permission to allow people to add two storeys to their home without planning permission, though they will still have to satisfy rules about safety and stability, and a host of other regulations. 

The change will only apply to detached housing, but it is a small and positive step. There’s no reason why this process ought not to start from a presumption that a homeowner can expand their home in this way, and it will at the margin make it easier for some people to have more space and to expand their family size – or even to simply increase the amount of housing available by creating a separate flat above their own to rent out. 

But there is also a step back: the creation of further powers for communities to stop developments that they judge to be “ugly”, a power that will in practice be used to frustrate most or all new builds. It’s incoherent to believe that, on the one hand, I as a homeowner should be able to add two extra storeys onto my home, never mind what the neighbours think, but to also believe that my neighbours and I should be able to come together to block a new development in the same street because of its supposed “ugliness”. 

Of all of the blind alleys in housing policy, the Conservative focus on “beautiful” buildings is surely the biggest. Fashions in architecture change: at the moment, mock-Georgian and brutalism would both score highly if you asked the opinion of any group of worthies, or indeed a public consultation, on what is “attractive” or “modern” or any other superlative you care to name. But the nature of fashion, in architecture as elsewhere, is that it changes, and in a few years’ time people will be sneering at mock-Georgian new builds while talking up the desirability of, I don’t know, let’s say Art Deco.

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The government should have ambitious targets both for the quantity and the quality of housing, but it should focus its regulatory eye on fire safety, insulation, environmental standards and good urban and street planning, rather than clinging onto whatever passing fad constitutes as “beauty”. 

This contradiction reveals the dirty secret of Conservative housing policy: the party talks a lot about the need to use housing policy to unlock a new wave of Tory voters by getting people on the property ladder, but it isn’t quite sure how far to go or how much it should be willing to risk its existing electoral coalition, which is heavy with homeowners. 

So what the party tends to end up with is planning liberalisation for existing homeowners, and further restrictions for new buildings. As a political strategy it makes sense: as a long-term solution to the policy problem, it falls short.

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