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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Tories Blame Too Much Housebuilding For Local Election Losses

One senior Conservative suggested the unhappiness around house-building and targets was exploited by opposing parties (Alamy)

6 min read

Conservative MPs and council leaders are concerned that a belief they are building too many houses has cost them support in last week's local elections, despite urgent calls for increased development to tackle the housing crisis.

The Conservatives haemorrhaged more than 1,000 council seats and lost control of several major councils in a disastrous poll for the party last Thursday. Labour is now the largest party in local government having gained 537 seats, while the Liberal Democrats also made major gains, including taking hold of councils in constituencies represented by high profile Conservative MPs including former prime minister Theresa May.

A senior Conservative told PoliticsHome they believed an increase in housebuilding and the proposal of more development had cost the Tories seats, especially around London and the south-east. They suggested the unhappiness around development and continued dispute around housebuilding targets had been exploited by candidates from opposing parties including anti-development messaging in their campaigns. 

In Bromsgrove, a former Conservative stronghold where the party lost overall control of the council, the Liberal Democrats boasted its candidates were in favour of protecting the green belt and against the "overspill" of new housing development. 

During the Chesham and Amersham by-election in 2021, where the Liberal Democrats won the seat from the Tories for the first time ever, the party ran leaflets which pitted them against the Conservatives who would "hand power to developers".

Another senior Conservative MP told PoliticsHome they felt Tory losses could have been more severe had Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, not abandoned housebuilding targets last year.

Gove put forward legislation to radically overhaul England's planning system, which included mandatory housebuilding targets and making it easier for developers to gain permission to build homes. However, opposition from more than 50 Tory MPs forced Gove to water down his original proposals.

The Levelling-up Secretary dropped manadatory targets and replaced them with advisory ones. 

"Michael Gove's decision to give councils, who have little land, the flexibility to set lower housing goals has undoubtedly been a help for the Conservatives,” the senior Tory added. 

The Lib Dems also won four council seats in Wokingham, the constituency of former Cabinet minister John Redwood, while the Tories lost three seats. The parliamentary seat in the area is also a prime Lib Dem target for the next General Election after they halved Redwood’s majority in 2019, according to a source in the party.

Leader of Wokingham Borough Conservatives Pauline Jorgensen told PoliticsHome that having “some relief” on local housing targets would be “useful” for campaigners and local associations.

“We have overbuilt housing in this area and it is increasing too fast for the infrastructure,” she told PoliticsHome.

Britain is in the middle of an acute housing crisis having built far fewer homes than most European countries, according to the Centre for Cities, an independent think tank. Housebuilding has dropped at its fastest rate since May 2020 when Britain was in lockdown. The average age of a first time buyer in 2022 was 32 in the UK, two years older than it was ten years earlier, according to building society Halifax

Research from the Home Builders Federation concluded that an apparently “anti-development” approach to housebuilding by government has exacerbated the housing crisis. It suggested the failure to tackle planning reform could lead to the supply of homes halving, leading to the biggest drop in housebuilding since the Second World War.

Over the last 18 years the average house price has risen by more than £130,000. While property prices did fall slightly for a third consecutive month, according to the Office for National Statistics, but this was by only £6,000 from November to February. 

Rigid planning laws have stopped more than 4.3 million homes from being built since 1955, according to Centre for Cities. It said it could take 50 years to fix the housing deficit even if 300,000 homes are commissioned and built every year. 

There is, however, a growing group of Conservative MPs who want to liberalise planning laws and see more houses being built so more younger people can access the housing market. 

Former Chairman of the 1922 Committee and MP for Broxbourne Charles Walker said MPs had an obligation to support younger voters by giving the green light to more house building. 

“As a Conservative I want to see a generation behind me prosper and have many of the opportunities I had. Nothing encapsulates that better than living in a nice home,” he told PoliticsHome

Former minister Robert Courts, who is a supporter of Next Gen Tories  – a campaign group aiming to tackle the generational divide and unlock the support of the under-45s for the Conservative Party – echoed this view. He said the Conservative Party cannot expect young people to embrace capitalism “without capital”.

“Without a legitimate plan to increase supply of affordable homes for young people in the areas in which they want to live, the Tory party risks its electoral future,” he told PoliticsHome.

Reports from The Times suggested the Government was thinking of reviving Help to Buy to enable more first time buyers. Under the scheme, people need a five per cent deposit and can borrow up to 20 per cent of the value of a propery from Government. But experts have suggested Help to Buy will not address the problem of supply and exacerbate demand, pushing prices up further. 

Head of Political Economy at IEA Kristian Niemietz told PoliticsHome while many residents may not like housebuilding, the consequences of not acting are far worse.

“It is a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation, where politicians – and this goes for all parties – will make enemies whatever they do. So they might as well do the right thing, for a change, and allow the expansion in housebuilding which Britain so desperately needs," he added.

James Yucel, Director of Communications at Priced Out, an independent group campaiging for more homes to be built, said it was “not surprising” that the Conservatives were losing votes nationwide when there is a failure to build houses.

“All parties need to recognise that failing to build houses in the long run will mean that you won’t get the votes of those suffering from its impact on house prices," he said. 

“If the Conservatives ever want to fix the housing crisis and reclaim the vote of struggling first-time buyers and young people, they must start paying attention to [MPs] Simon Clarke and Charles Walker who have now emerged as the voices of reason within the parliamentary party.”

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