No wonder the government’s housing promises are a complete sham – MPs treat this crisis like an afterthought

Whatever you think of the right-to-buy, at least it proved the Tories can have big ideas on housing. They just seem to have run out of them

Theresa May: Young people right to be angry about housing crisis

None of the 200,000 new “starter homes” the Conservative government promised to build to help young people buy their own home have been built. Not one. Nothing.

Actually, that’s not quite right. In 2015, former prime minister David Cameron did indeed pledge hundreds of thousands of new properties aimed at first-time buyers under the age of 40, each to be sold at a 20 per cent discount. It was a recognition of the extent of the housing crisis, and how it was beginning to eat up the early adult lives of so many people – trapping them in their parents’ homes, locked in a lifetime of renting, putting off starting families until it might be too late.

The new homes were supposed to be completed by the end of next year, and £2bn was found to fund the first 60,000 properties. The land secured for them – and there were specific sites earmarked, in towns and cities such as Bristol, Plymouth and Stockport – has been built upon. So some new homes do exist where they were intended to be built.

But according to a National Audit Office report, this great hopeful plan resulted in no new actual “starter homes” being built. It sounds positively dystopian, and in a sense it is. Because the legislation needed to pass the project into law was never passed (blame Brexit), those homes built on these sites are not being marketed as “starter homes” as that legislation defined or sold at the discount that was promised to voters. Instead, many – perhaps most, though the NAO does not state this – are being sold as ordinary homes on the open market.

A sum of £174m was spent by the government acquiring and preparing the land for these homes, and now they are fuelling demand in the market at levels still unreachable to the young. It’s a perverse use of government money.

Some two election campaigns ago – they come around so quickly these days! – prospective MPs and the party policymakers realised that the price of Britain’s housing stock, its poor condition, and the unstable lives of long-term renters, had become an electable issue. In 2015, doorstep canvassers heard that it was not only motivating the voters of young people but now their parents and their grandparents too, as they were the ones being asked to provide large cash deposits or spare rooms for fledgelings who should have long since flown.

Yet the Conservatives – who won both those election campaigns – ended up making a policy promise that was quite literally empty. Why?

There are two reasons, and they are related. First, this specific legislation didn’t pass because, in two unusually crowded parliamentary terms (Brexit again), it wasn’t considered enough of a priority. Sounds remarkable, yet this amount of money is small fry when looking at government spending in the round; a small project, with accordingly small support to force it through.

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Conservative housing policy in recent years has amounted to tinkering: a few interesting ideas, a few relatively small projects. Labour, in many of the years before that came a cropper here too; they got obsessed with custom building, erroneously labelling their electorate as a nation of budding Grand Designers. Neither have had the temerity to do something radical to change the housing market and solve the problem – and this is the second reason for failure – despite the fact that both parties enjoyed huge success when they had the ambition to run major housing projects in the past.

Labour was the architect of the new towns project in the 1940s post-war housing boom, setting up dedicated development corporations to oversee the planning and building of towns such as Milton Keynes, Crawley and Bracknell. It took vision, but it paid off.

The same can be said for the Conservative policy of right-to-buy, whatever your perspective on the end results of that project: it was bold, it took guts, and it changed the way ordinary people met and managed their own housing needs.

Today’s politicians lack that ambition and bravery. In the time of Brexit, they see housing as a fringe concern. They have let their ideas on the issue wither. Everybody – and housing policy affects every voter – deserves better than that.

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