Photo by Monty Rakusen
Artillery Row

We demand supply

There is no alternative to building houses

Fifty-year mortgages, which allow children to inherit their parents’ homes and repayment schedules, are in the news. The concept is eye-catching but light on detail. It involves an asset-rich generation offloading its debts onto its asset-poor offspring. It would not increase the housing supply by one solitary brick. In other words, it’s got this government’s name written all over it. 

Musing on the idea, Boris Johnson said: “We want to find all sorts of creative ways to help people into ownership.”

You know what the verb form of “creative” is? Create. You know what a synonym for “create” is? Build. You know what’s something that you can build? Houses. 

Build more houses. Build more after that. Then build even more. Build them here. Build them there. Build them everywhere. When you think you’ve built too many, keep on building. In fact, why are you reading this when there’s foundation to be poured? There should be a paywall every time an MP clicks on an Artillery Row link: “Please select all the squares containing housing developments built on your watch.” 

The 50-year mortgage notion — let’s not pretend it’s a policy — is of a piece with this government’s war on young workers. That campaign recently stepped up with the announcement that the pensions triple lock will return, just two months after the health and social care levy came into effect. That’s the National Insurance hike that ensures the costs of social care for retirees are met by everyone but retirees. 

It is in perpetuating intergenerational injustice — in fulfilling their own dream of home ownership then denying it to millennials and Gen-Z — that boomers have done the most damage to Britain’s social and political fabric. Take me, for example. I am an agonisingly centrist, small-ish state liberal and I routinely find myself day-dreaming about ZANU — PF-style land grabs and 100 per cent inheritance taxes. This is not healthy, for me or for British democracy. 

Will people still evolve from youthful idealism to canny moderation?

And yet there seems little hope of remedying the problem. The Conservative Party is focused on the next election but the next election, even if it results in a particularly rough eviction from Downing Street, is not what should concern it. The party can sustain a landslide defeat and come back within two or three election cycles. What the Tories face, what they are helping to bring about, is a societal hinge moment, a tipping point at which being middle aged in Middle Britain means a life of precarity, of renting, of uncoupled house-sharing, of childlessness, of being without pensions or savings. Such a tipping point could augur something much more ruinous for the Tories than a landslide defeat or two. It could be an extinction-level event, a political Chicxulub impact that ends almost two centuries of the Conservatives as one of the two major parties of British politics. 

Conservatives hold a mystical belief in the political determinism of age: the older you get, the more right-wing you get. This may be the case with cultural attitudes but does thinking popular music is getting worse and wondering when believing in racial equality became a form of racism translate into voting for the Conservative Party? I’m not so sure it does. The conservatism that matters most in electoral terms is the conservatism of intimate things. (“Everyone is a reactionary about subjects he understands”, as Bob Conquest supposedly held.) What are the intimate things, the subjects we understand best? I would suggest: family, means, property, fears and faith. Since religion has almost no traction in British politics, we can set that last one aside, but the others are highly pertinent. 

What is the fastest way to become cautious and protective? Have children. What is the surest route to resenting tax rises? Making money. Want to get fixated on employment and economic stability? Get a mortgage. What is the most atavistic instinct all three draw out? Fear. Fear for your family’s welfare, safety and future. Fear for your bank balance and quality of life. Fear of sudden financial reversal and even possession. Fear encourages us to limit exposure, minimise risk, oppose change and erect safeguards. It drives us, in short, to conserve. 

What the Tories fail to account for is what will happen to political conservatism when people have nothing to conserve. Will they still evolve from youthful idealism to canny moderation? Will they still be nudged towards responsibility, restraint, regard for the rule of law and respect for institutions? Will they still acquire the personal structures and obligations that have typically marshalled previous generations towards the Tory box on the ballot paper? Perhaps, contrary to all expectations, these developments will still occur, but isn’t it more likely that the change will be in the opposition direction? That people with radically different income security, family set-ups, and housing arrangements will vote differently — and perhaps radically so — from their parents and grandparents? 

The opportunity for a Middle Britain of the future to become wedded to greater state intervention, more socialisation of national prosperity and a political agenda of outcome equality seems at least plausible. Particularly if retailed by a party prepared to ditch divisive, identitarian, individualist rhetoric and speak in communitarian terms about fairness, a strong society and the good life. The collapse of British opportunity under the Tories has opened up political territory for the Labour Party which, being the Labour Party, it has stubbornly failed to occupy. 

Changing the terms of the UK’s political economy will be hard, which is how you can be sure the Conservative Party won’t be seen within a country mile of it. It will involve challenging vested interests and striking a new compact to treat younger voters like citizens rather than involuntary donors to a never-ending boomer blood drive. 

A modern social contract for young and working-age Britons should have at its centre an old-fashioned ideal: that the duty of the people in every generation is to give their children’s generation a better start in life than they had. The top item should be, no surprises, an undertaking to build sufficient homes to meet not only present need but to backfill unmet need, i.e. enough houses for twenty-somethings just starting out and forty-somethings forced to settle for renting or buying a pokey, family-inhibiting shoebox. 

Boomerocracy feeds entitlement while famishing next generations

Second, declare an all-out war on NIMBYism. Applying for permission to build up to 50 new houses in England costs £462 per house; any more and the fee shoots up to £22,859 plus £138 per house up to a maximum of £300,000. So, legislate a planning objection fee — a NIMBY Tax — that reflects the initial investment developers are willing to make in building homes. Submitting an objection to one or more houses in a development should incur a fee of £462 (50 units or fewer) or £600 (more than 50 units). Alternatively, central government could tackle the problem in local government itself. Fine local authorities that reject planning permission too often, based on a formula factoring in demand, capacity and economic impact.

Or, remember the under-occupancy charge, otherwise known as the Bedroom Tax? Instead of cutting the Universal Credit of renters living in accommodation with excess bedrooms, why not levy a “tax” on councils for owner-occupied homes that are under-occupied? A Homelessness Prevention Fee could set a maximum permissible number of under-occupied homes within a local authority’s boundaries. When the threshold is exceeded, the council would be liable to pay a set fee. Not only would this incentivise councils to okay more developments, if they were allowed to pass the cost directly to under-occupied owners, it could even help grease the gears of the local housing market.

Third, pinch Lord Willetts’ idea for addressing The Pinch, in which “baby boomers took their children’s future”: replace council tax and stamp duty with a proportional property tax. Set at 0.5 per cent, he reckons, it would “deliver lower bills for three quarters of households, while reducing them to zero for renters”. 

Fourth, raise the lower threshold for Class 1 and small profits threshold for Class 2 National Insurance contributions. Pay for it in part by scrapping the pensions triple lock while supplementing the incomes of the 15 per cent of pensioners who live in relative poverty after housing costs. 

Fifth, foster healthier working practices by introducing a right to disconnect. Technological change has made the modern worker constantly contactable, enabling employers to surreptitiously extend his hours. The right to disconnect, already in place in France, Italy and Slovakia, would allow workers to switch off devices and ignore work emails outside working hours.

Boomerocracy has severed Burke’s partnership between the living, dead and yet to be born, feeding the entitlement of one generation while famishing two succeeding generations (so far). Repairing those bonds and restoring an ethic of intergenerational duty are among the most urgent projects of national prosperity and social unity. The party that takes them up will suffer in the moment for doing so but will stand to reap the rewards of courage, leadership and vision. The question for the Conservatives is whether they can be that party and, if they can’t, whether they have a future at all. 

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