Artillery Row

A country is a home or it’s nothing

Homes for heroes, ordinary people, anyone really – just build them

A cheery-looking chap from the local Lib Dems dropped a Focus leaflet through my door last weekend, the first political leaflet I’ve received since moving here a few months ago. It may surprise you that this isn’t the start of a Lib Dem-bashing article: while I no longer hold any fixed party allegiance for longer than the few seconds it takes to scrawl a cross in a box on polling day, I did put said cross beside the Lib Dem candidate’s name at December’s election and I broadly wish them well. So, I didn’t really expect to end up steaming with anger as I flipped through the pamphlet.

The Johnson administration doesn’t exactly impress one with the stiffness in its backbone

“Brace Yourselves: More Houses Are Coming” it thundered as it demanded that people write to the local Tory MP, Danny Kruger, asking why he supported the government’s proposals to reform the planning system. The leaflet acknowledged the “national housing need” but then talked about new homes as “the next storm”. Families having somewhere decent and secure to live is, apparently, comparable with a destructive weather event. Ironically, the leaflet heaped praise on NHS staff, many of whom are locked out of home ownership due to our acute housing shortage; praise never put a roof over anybody’s head.

I did indeed write to Kruger, but to congratulate the government on taking on the labyrinthine vested interests that have left Britain anywhere between a million and four million homes short, and with a wider national infrastructure that is decidedly spotty despite being world-leading at its best. I also uncovered an article by Kruger on ConservativeHome calling for a major programme of building “beautiful” social housing that while thin on detail was stuffed with the right spirit.

I should really have thanked my local LibDem candidate. It can be difficult for a politically minded cleric with a public record of decidedly non-rightwards politics to start a constructive relationship with a Tory constituency MP. It was a relief to be able to introduce myself to him with congratulations and common ground rather than sending him an angry missive on Brexit or the coronavirus that would get me perpetually filed in the “angry lefty vicar” dustbin.

The leaflet is, however, a sign that the government’s planning reforms are likely to be an obvious target for opponents of the Johnson government, with local elections potentially providing the means to build up a bandwagon of hostility. Not just in the shape the LibDems, although rebuilding his party’s once formidable local government base has to be Ed Davey’s top priority, but also the Greens, the single-issue candidates and local residents’ parties that are often particularly attractive to disaffected Tories, and perhaps even whatever emerges on the populist right from the wreckage of UKIP and the Brexit Party.

Labour’s response when the plans were first announced seemed a little confused; there must be some internal tension between those who see the proposals as an open electoral goal and the many Labour councillors and MPs who spend a lot of their lives dealing with the human consequences of having too few homes at unaffordable prices and rents.

The housing shortage is an enormous vector of generational and class injustice in today’s Britain

This is where I start to get a little worried. The Johnson administration doesn’t exactly impress one with the stiffness in its backbone. It started with a U-turn on customs checks in the Irish Sea, followed by about sixty-four U-turns on everything to do with the coronavirus, then making Marcus Rashford wish he could get defenders to run away from him like that, then most recently a veritable Sébastien Ogier power slide on exam grades. OK, so they did the right thing in backing down to Rashford, but it hardly inspires confidence that, despite a majority of eighty and Labour’s inability to assemble a poll lead no matter how badly they mess up, no policy is so important that a few angry tweets won’t get the government to back down. I don’t rate the chances of them standing up to a wholescale Middle England revolt.

I grew up in social housing, and I had to get my foot on the housing ladder without any assistance from my parents, who are still living in social housing and a lot poorer than I am. I’ve managed to beat the many barriers that stand in the way of people from modest backgrounds obtaining a secure home. I’m doing fine now, thanks, but personal experience taught me how the housing shortage is an enormous vector of generational and class injustice in today’s Britain. The government has mostly talked about infrastructure in arguing for its planning reform proposals, but I wonder if it has missed a trick in not putting human faces on the consequences of our failure to build.

Let’s look at a hypothetical household of Covid-19 heroes: a care home assistant married to a food plant operative, both earning the National Living Wage, with two kids at primary school. Working 40-hour weeks, they would take home about £616 pounds a week. In most of the country they would simply be locked out of home ownership, with little cash to spare to save for a deposit once rent, childcare, petrol, food, and utilities are paid for.

The tragic irony is that they are probably paying more in rent than they would for even a 90% starter mortgage on the equivalent property. They might well amass an impressive number of points if they applied for social housing, but with well over a million households on waiting lists, they could be waiting many years before being allocated a home, especially in the south of England. They can be evicted at two months’ notice without having done anything wrong, simply because the landlord’s plans change – I’ve had that happen to me – and their kids are likely to lack the space to study properly. A basic sense of fair play should tell us that planning reform is an urgent necessity.

This is an issue where the Johnson government needs to discover an attribute it has yet to display – bravery.

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