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17 May 2023

Why can’t the Housing Secretary build more houses?

The Tories do not have time to change the fundamentals of the housing market before the next election.

By Freddie Hayward

Michael Gove said at the National Conservativism Conference yesterday (16 May) that he was “absolutely committed” to more houses being built.

So why can’t the Housing Secretary build more houses? Surely he’s the man to do it? There are two key reasons: the party is divided, and it’s running out of time. Rishi Sunak had to back down in the face of a rebellion over housing targets back in December. Alongside planning reform, the decision is predicted to result in 77,000 fewer houses being built every year. Gove will introduce the Renters Reform Bill to parliament today, which should end no-fault evictions and stop landlords increasing rents more than once a year. But it’s doubtful whether renters will feel the impact of the reforms before the next election.

Labour is looking to capitalise on this. Keir Starmer has told the Times he will give councils more powers to build on the greenbelt, relax planning restrictions and reinstate the housing targets.

Housing is conspicuously absent from Labour’s five national missions. The party says it falls under the mission to grow the economy, but it’s not been front and centre of its messaging. So why the move? Having a clear plan makes the government look ineffective and divided: as we saw in the aftermath of the local elections, Conservatives from MPs to councillors turn on each other when developers move into their constituencies. Being bolder than the government helps Labour frame the PM as weak and distracts from the Conservatives’ own agenda.

The Tories might squirrel a plan into their manifesto at the next election, assuming they can get their MPs to agree. But they will struggle to change the fundamentals of the housing market in 18 months. They’ll have to convince the electorate that they’re a different party to the one that’s governed for the past 13 years. In the meantime, raising interest rates are hitting mortgage-holders. Higher rents are hitting renters. Housebuilding is set to fall. And Rishi Sunak is running out of time.

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