How do you win votes on a nimby manifesto?

As well as making it even harder for young adults to get a foot on the property ladder, the Tories’ approach will make the economic growth the UK desperately needs even more elusive

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 17 May 2023 13:15 BST
Keir Starmer claims house prices will fall under Labour government

Housing is a vital issue but, surprisingly, a Cinderella one in politics. Unusually, for today at least, it’s at the top of the political agenda.

Keir Starmer is promising, in a speech to the British Chambers of Commerce this afternoon, that a Labour government would back the “builders, not the blockers”. He opened the door to housebuilding in the green belt – a controversial but necessary move to address the housing crisis.

Meanwhile, Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, is announcing a welcome but overdue boost for Generation Rent by banning landlords from evicting tenants without good reason. His Renters’ (Reform) Bill would also make it easier for landlords to evict anti-social tenants. Sadly, Downing Street has forced Gove to abandon his pledge to end what he called the “outdated feudal” leasehold system. Instead, it will be reformed in separate legislation later this year.

Labour is winning the battle on housing – or, more accurately, the Conservatives are losing it. Ministers know they will not meet their goal of building 300,000 homes a year in the UK after Rishi Sunak surrendered to the nimbys by scrapping compulsory local housebuilding targets to head off a Tory backbench rebellion.

More than 50 councils have already changed their housebuilding plans to take advantage of this “nimbys’ charter” and there are predictions the number of homes built in England will drop from 233,000 to 155,000 a year.

As well as making it even harder for young adults to get a foot on the property ladder, the Tories’ approach will make the economic growth the UK desperately needs even more elusive. New housing is one of the easiest and quickest ways to spur growth; building 100,000 homes adds an estimated 1 per cent to GDP.

Some ministers admit privately that Sunak’s decision on local targets was a mistake that will cost the Tories dearly. But he is unlikely to do a U-turn on his U-turn, as this would reopen the party’s deep split on the housing issue. It was striking that, after its drubbing in this month’s local elections in England, nimby Tory MPs with poor results claimed the party had been punished for building, while yimbys argued it had been rewarded for doing so in their areas.

It’s not all the politicians’ fault. The pressure from nimbys is real. One senior Tory told me: “I am getting letters from people who have recently bought new houses opposing more building nearby. But we cannot let them pull up the drawbridge and we need to show leadership. Why would anyone vote for the pro-capitalism party if we don’t let them accrue any capital?”

The Tories are putting a short-term hit above the long-term viability of their party as an election-winning machine. They will gleefully accuse Starmer of planning to “concrete over the green belt” but will be preaching mainly to the converted – older voters already the most likely to vote Tory – rather than the younger people the party needs to reach.

Sunak will revive a form of the expired help-to-buy scheme for first-time buyers but that won’t disguise the Tories’ failure. The party will pay a price for locking a generation of potential Tory voters out of the property market.

Starmer has spotted this wide-open goal. Becoming Keir the Builder also helps answer the legitimate question of how to achieve the first of his five “missions” – the highest sustained growth in the G7.

The Labour leader is trying to address the apparent contradiction between allowing green belt housing with his commitment to devolve power. His answer is that the government will bring back local housing targets and review the process of how green land can be released for development, but give local authorities the final decision on where to build.

Would a yimby Labour manifesto outgun a nimby Tory one? On the face of it, yes. Home ownership levels have risen among the over-65s but dropped sharply among younger people.

But Starmer’s plan is a work in progress. He will need to provide more detail and shout it from the rooftops a thousand times for it to cut through. Even then, there’s a risk that Labour’s promise becomes just another one that fails to impress sceptical voters who don’t trust any politicians.

In Labour’s favour is another reason why housing will harm the Tories’ election prospects. Those fortunate enough to be buying their homes are seeing their mortgage payments rise thanks to the chaotic Liz Truss government. Some 1.4 million fixed-rate mortgages will have to be renewed at higher rates this year – between 300,000 and 400,000 each quarter, so the pain is being prolonged. The voters know who to blame.

Before general elections, there are often predictions that housing will loom large, but is usually a dog that doesn’t bark and is eclipsed by other issues. In next year’s contest, the economy and state of public services after 14 years of Tory rule will be the main issues, but I have a feeling that this time housing will not be far behind. It certainly should be. If that happens, it will be very bad news for the Tories.

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