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Oblige sans noblesse

Our future King is doing more practical good on the housing crisis than the Government

Artillery Row

Say what you like about King Louis XVI of France, but when they led him to the guillotine, he probably wasn’t spluttering that he’d paid into the Ancien Régime all his life. Perhaps that’s the price you pay when you exchange aristocratic for bourgeois rule.

Recently Prince Charles has attempted to build a new neighbourhood in the Kent town of Faversham. On the surface, it ticks all the boxes set out by those who insist they’d back new housing if only it was tastefully designed and carefully thought out. His Royal Highness not only brings to the project the same architectural sensibilities that underlie his signature project, Poundbury, but the proposals also include a new school, a new market street and several other features intended to create employment.

To cap it all off, it has been earmarked for three entirely ordinary fields, right next to a local motorway. No bucolic haven of hedgerows and birdsong this.

And yet, and yet, the Daily Mail had no trouble rounding up a bevy of the usual comfortable, grey-haired homeowners to complain about the “monstrosity”. One group apparently believe it will contribute to “the destruction of Kent”. 

Asset-rich voters will usually get their way

Elsewhere, Conservative MPs who the day before yesterday were urging the Government to reject planning reform on the basis that the current system works perfectly well, are now demanding that ministers overrule that same planning system to scrap hundreds of thousands of approvals for new houses, proposing instead to ban any new building on undeveloped land. Michael Gove, the new Housing Secretary, has stuck to announcing some few thousand homes that can be built on “brownfield” locations. (The nation needs millions, remember.)

The Prime Minister, meanwhile, used his speech at conference to let slip the most intellectually honest justification we have yet witnessed for “levelling up”: desperately trying to avoid the reality that population growth and the UK’s economic geography necessitate inflicting unwanted new neighbours on the residents of this country’s more desirable villages and neighbourhoods.

It is easy to be angry at them and we should be but we should also recognise that they have little choice. This is a democracy, which means that a sufficiently large and motivated cohort of asset-rich voters will usually get their way. If that means trying to lock this country permanently into a development footprint that wasn’t fit for purpose when Clement Attlee first sketched it in 1948, so be it.

What we seem to have arrived at is a peculiar version of the future illustrated by Michael Young in his The Rise of the Meritocracy. Whilst the word is usually used favourably today, Young actually opposed the idea, fearing that a world where people felt they’d earned their station would produce hierarchies wherein those above felt no obligation to those below.

The aristocratic system did not pretend to be fair

“We paid in all our lives!”; “I bought my house fair and square!”; the rallying cries of the so-called “Grey Wall” are variations on Young’s theme. The cruel twist being the gaping absence of merit from so much of the settlement at no point did today’s retirees actually pay in sufficient money to fund even the day-to-day spending of previous generations, let alone their retirements, and whilst they might have bought their homes, the vast increase in their value was largely adventitious. 

The aristocratic system that gave rise to Prince Charles, by contrast, did not pretend to be fair. It gave us instead the concept of noblesse oblige, and the idea that noble status meant fitting into an interlocking web of social responsibilities. Today’s electorally-dominant class are big on oblige, to be sure, but seem by and large to be sans noblesse. An aristocrat’s long-term view of their patrimony might deliver improvements for an entire estate, à la Poundbury; for today’s electorally-dominant class, it extends only to ensuring that taxes on working-age people protect their own children’s inheritances when they’re not organising to prevent the demolition of substandard housing or insist, if it is demolished, that nothing is built to replace it. 

Alas, there is likely no modern-day Jacques Cathelineau ready to raise an army of young people and turn Faversham or the Excalibur Estate into this generation’s Vendée. Democratic politics has hit a sorry pass when our future King is doing more practical good on the great crisis facing this country than the Government nominally serving in his mother’s name.

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