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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Tories Are Torn Between The NIMBY Faithful And Voters Who Are Desperate For Houses

Decades of inaction on planning-reform has left Britain in the middle of an acute housing crisis, experts say (Alamy)

5 min read

The Conservative party has found itself at a crossroads on housebuilding, and whichever way they turn they risk alienating voters.

Does the party of homeownership stay faithful to its loyal base who bought in a very different economic climate and don't very much want development in their back yards? Or do they persuade younger voters locked out of the property market that they can build more properties before they vote for someone else they think will enable them to buy a house?

The latter is viewed by many, including a number of leading Tory MPs, to be the key to unlocking electoral success when the government next goes to the polls. The price, however, could be the support of the former

For the 13 years the Conservatives have been in power, the party has written proposals and put forward white papers to shake up the country’s planning system. But during this period the parliamentary party has been divided between its pro-building arm and traditional anti-development faction.

A new clash between the two groups has emerged since the local elections last week, after one senior Tory partly blamed an increase in housebuilding on Conservative losses, while pro-planning Tories continue their desperate plea for more houses. 

Simon Clarke, who completed a brief stint as Levelling-up Secretary in Liz Truss's government, and is a leading voice on development, said the question of housing reform “goes to the heart” of Conservative politics. He told PoliticsHome the Conservatives are “the party of opportunity” and need to stand behind “everyone who wants a decent home of their own”.

“It is perfectly possible for us to ensure high quality design codes and to be clear that the right infrastructure needs to accompany new homes,” he said.

“This is a question of both social justice and economic common sense. But it is also a political issue.  We saw in last week’s local elections that there is zero electoral benefit from our trying to out-NIMBY the NIMBYS, and we need to change direction and get out there and make the case for housing.”

Decades of inaction on planning-reform has left Britain in the middle of an acute housing crisis, according to experts. Following multiple revolts from backbenchers, housebuilding has fallen at its fastest rate since May 2020 when Britain was in lockdown.

The average age of a first time buyer is two years older than it was a decade ago, according to building society Halifax. 

Meanwhile research from King’s College London concluded existing policies were simply “propping up the broken housing market” and had disproportionately helped older voters. They believed this had led to the Conservatives having “unusually low levels of support” from younger generations. Only two per cent of people aged 18-24 say they want to vote for the Conservatives at the next general election, according to a YouGov poll for The Times.

Former Justice Secretary Brandon Lewis told PoliticsHome the Conservatives should make housebuilding a big part of its election manifesto.

However, he did not believe the policy should divide its own electorate, and stressed MPs should aim at getting every generation on side when it comes to housebuilding.  

“I was housing minister in 2015 and we did well in that election and we won it and made housing a big part of our pitch,” he told PoliticsHome.

“When you are behind in the polls, you have got to do a few things. As a party we are there to provide housing for people… whether it’s helping SMEs (small and medium enterprises) build a few nice homes or the big developers. It’s in the Conservative Party’s DNA.”

Ben Everitt, MP for Milton Keynes North, who sits on the Levelling-up committee, said the housing debate was too focused on pitting “NIMBYs and YIMBYs” against one another. He said future electoral success depends on getting “affordable, appropriate and sustainable housing development”.

“When it's done badly, we need to call it out, but when it's done well, we can provide high quality, affordable homes for communities up and down the country and get the next generation on the property ladder,” he told PoliticsHome.

James Sunderland, MP for Bracknell, who was elected in 2019, told PoliticsHome's podcast The Rundown that we “need more housing everywhere”. But he urged the government to find a balance on building homes without touching the green belt.

“Nimbyism I’m afraid, is very strong in most of our constituencies,” he said. “What we can't afford to do is build on those leisure facilities, those parks, golf courses, our woodland where you walk the dog in the morning, that that land is sacred.”

Former minister Bob Seely, MP for Isle of Wight, who was instrumental in a recent Tory rebellion on planning reform, said there was a lack of "evidence" that the Conservative's housing policy cost them votes in the local elections. He wrote in ConservativeHome that the party has a "positive" story to tell on homeownership after 400,00 first-time buyers got on to the property ladder last year. 

"We need more focus on young people. We want under-pressure areas to be able to focus on building for their young people, through housing association or a new generation of council building," he wrote. 

But despite eagerness from some to sell a more optimistic message on housing, average house prices remains eight times higher than the typical salary in Britain, according to the ONS. With Labour promising bolder policies on housebuilding and boosting homeownership, the Tories will have to decide whether to tackle housing reform or continue to let property prices soar. 

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