As if taxing dividends, clamping down on non-doms, removing tax breaks from landlords and introducing a national living wage was not enough to make George Osborne look and feel more like a Labour chancellor than a traditional Conservative, now he is taking on those who live in the Tory shires.
Mr Osborne is right to identify our restrictive planning rules as one of the principal obstacles to solving a housing crisis that has been building for years, if not decades. As with his adoption of other leftish policies, he is right to speed up planning and tackle vested interests in rural and suburban Britain, more often than not habitual supporters of his own party. In a week when the average value of a British home has passed the £200,000 mark, not far off 10 times average earnings, the Chancellor has shown himself again alert to a pressing political as well as economic need.
So his hard-hat offensive is as welcome as it is overdue. Even if all the available options for brownfield development were used to provide new homes in redeveloped city centres, there would still be a demand for extra housing in areas where there is very little scope for fresh brownfield developments. This is most obviously true in London, where the Docklands, Paddington Basin and other projects have already dealt with the surprisingly large tracts of land bequeathed by the de-industrialisation of the capital.
There are more to come, of course, such as some of the Royal Mail’s facilities, and yet there are limits to what the infrastructure of central London can bear. There may be little option other than to push into the pleasanter parts of the Home Counties to build more family homes for commuters – right into the centre of the Conservatives’ political heartlands, containing some of the most vicious Nimbys ever to take their fight to a planning appeal hearing.
One option certainly worth considering is how to develop much faster rail links from parts of near-London which remain depressed despite the current boom in the metropolis – symbolised by the plight and painful rebuilding of Margate. If that seaside town had the same fast trains to London as Brighton boasts, it would soon recover its joie de vivre and provide a fine home for many London workers. We shall also soon discover whether the Cabinet is sufficiently brave and united to take on those same vested interests – Tory voters – when they decide on expanding Heathrow airport.
What goes for London is also true, to a lesser extent, of the hinterland of other towns and cities nationally, especially the market towns and cathedral cities that are in vogue. East Anglia and stretching up into Lincolnshire has a number of these, and is hardly “full” as some would have us believe.
Successive governments have failed to provide the right incentives and framework of stability for investment in private or social housing, and the inexorable workings of the laws of supply and demand have left us in the grim situation we are in today.
When Mr Osborne, understandably, complains about the size of the housing benefit bill he must realise that high rents are not simply down to rapacious landlords, but the product of a shortage of supply. He might also consider whether it is really sensible not to levy any form of capital gains tax on people’s main residence, a form of investment made attractive by this uniquely generous tax break.
The proceeds could be used to build more social housing. But that really would be an act of political courage.Reuse content