Ding-ding – round two of the battle for the high ground on housing has started. In the red corner we have John Prescott, armed with the Barker report and facing down criticism of a leaked government report on the environmental impact of building new homes. In the blue corner is little-known Tory spokesman John Hayes, announcing the priorities that would form the basis of housing policy for a future Conservative government. Launching the Tories' vision, Hayes said: “I propose that the idea of the home – and its protection – should become a defining theme for Conservatives.”
In the middle – literally – we find the middle England homeowner (or aspirant homeowner), amongst whom lurk the floating voters who will decide whether the reds or the blues take power. The Conservatives are fiercely critical of Barker and the government's insistence that more houses must be built to ease the supply side of the market. “A major housebuilding programme is unlikely to reduce house prices,” said Hayes in his speech. “It's interest rates, macro-economic factors and the relative unattractiveness of alternative investment opportunities that drive up house prices. A supply-side solution to the problem of house price inflation will be slow and crude.”
At the heart of the Conservative strategy lie aspiration and affordability, and the promotion of shared equity is a big theme. For those FTB aspirants who cannot afford their own homes, the idea is that lenders or developers will fund half or two-thirds of the loan while retaining the remaining equity. This idea would also be used to extend the Thatcherite policy of Right to Buy. On this Hayes declared “we must go further” by “looking at how we can promote and extend transferable discounts to help tenants buy a home”. The Conservatives also want to extend Right to Buy to housing association tenants.
Empty homes are another area where Hayes sees an alternative to new build. The Tories have supported the government's proposals on compulsory leasing and they are also considering the legal, administrative and tax incentives to bring homes back into use, especially in the South-East. And those living in rural areas are not forgotten, with proposals to incentivise the adaptation of redundant farm buildings for housing.
There was something for everyone in the launch speech as Hayes explained that “urban areas that have been gentrified suffer too”. He is interested in ideas for a “new system of housing tenure called 'local hold' whereby homes that can only be bought by people with “longstanding local connections”. It will be interesting to see how the idea will go down with the true-blue second home-owning faithful- or even carpetbagging political candidates moving to a constituency to increase their chances of getting a safe seat.
You may well see Mr Hayes soon as he tours Britain drawing up his 'Blacklist of Blight', the centrepiece of the Tory policy on brownfield regeneration. The list will cover everything from “infamously ugly buildings” to “a crumbling and disused factory or the site of a demolished warehouse”. Some of these will be earmarked for new housing, while others will be “greened over”.
Whether this list will earmark enough land to build the houses needed to adapt to the changing demographics of middle England – more single households, people living longer, less emphasis on the traditional nuclear family – we will find out next year. This proposal, like others, lacks detail so it is hard to offer a real analysis.
Lenders will be engaged in the debate on alternative models of homeownership in coming months. Indeed, the BSA will be discussing it at the political party conferences in the autumn, sharing a platform with Shelter.
Making housing more affordable for Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman is a priority for politicians of all hues but how this is done is a sensitive political area. Despite only 7% of England being covered by towns, cities and suburbs, the fear that the Green Belt will be concreted over is palpable in such headlines as 'Brown's house building plan will devastate country'. This accompanied a report looking at the environmental impact of the Barker review and no doubt caused a headache for Messers Brown and Prescott, even though it was dismissed in perfect Yes Minister terms as “a valuable contribution to inter-departmental discussion”.