Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely: 'We’ve exported our young people - and then wonder why we earn just 80% of the national average'
Bob Seely says he only ever wanted to represent the Isle of Wight - a dream that finally came true in 2017. But, as the Conservative MP tells Matt Foster, Government housing policy is leaving young islanders facing an uphill struggle
“Representing the island is like being married to the right woman,” Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely chuckles as he fiddles with the acoustic guitar he keeps on hand for those rare quiet moments in his Westminster office. “If I was the MP for anywhere else I would be very dutiful. But I would also be very jealous of the person who had the island.”
While he's not quite breaking into a ballad for the Isle of Wight, it's clear that the Conservative MP is deeply attached to the "beautiful" quality of life on offer on the other side of the Solent. But he's also increasingly outspoken about the challenges facing its 140,000 residents, who put an acute shortage of affordable housing at the top of their list of concerns. Seely is clear that ministers from his own government must share the blame for housing policy he believes is “actively detrimental to the interests of my island”.
“I wish the Government would listen more closely to the advice of MPs who are trying to do the right thing,” he says. “Because the current system of developer-led targets doesn’t help anybody. And I don’t think for one second it’s going to allow the Government to achieve house building on a significant scale.”
The Isle of Wight is currently being asked to build more than 600 houses a year under a Whitehall-determined quota system which Seely says is doing little to account for the island's remoteness, unique history or local character.
He argues that the Government's reliance on developers doing the right thing has simply resulted in a wave of more lucrative three and four-bedroom properties going up in a bid to tempt wealthier retirees to cross the Solent and make a home there.
“Building a house on the island costs 30% more than the national average,” he explains. “So for 50 years we’ve built houses for people to retire to the island, incomers, and we’ve exported our young people. And then we wonder why we earn just 80% of the national average. You know, it’s a no-brainer. We haven’t invested in small businesses. We’ve just seen economic growth through building houses, which is not the way forward.”
The Isle of Wight’s young people, Seely warns, are becoming increasingly “unhappy because they’ve got no housing for them”, with an entire generation now at risk of having to leave the island they’ve grown up on - and taking their ideas and entrepreneurial spirit with them.
But they’re not the only ones feeling the impact of the island’s long-standing focus on prioritising retirement homes. The Tory MP says the lack of smaller, affordable units also means older people “don’t have sheltered housing to go into” once larger homes become unmanageable for them.
Since he took up post in 2017, Seely has been urging ministers to ditch the 600-plus annual target for new homes on the island in favour of a “just about manageable” 300 units a year. While it’s a smaller number of houses, Seely believes its genuinely achievable - and he wants to see the vast majority of those homes “built for young or older islanders - not for people choosing to retire here”.
He's clear that the island's housing crisis cannot be solved without a vast expansion of proper social homes - and not the current definition that deems a property ‘affordable’ if its rent does not exceed 80% of the local market rate.
“I’ll tell you what we need to do - we need a new era of council building,” he says. “But the island can’t do that because we don’t have a housing revenue account, and it’s difficult for us to borrow money. And then if we build council houses people have the Right to Buy. I’m in favour of the Right to Buy, and of schemes to help people get onto the housing ladder - but not at the cost of getting rid of social housing.
He adds: “I used to think the island must be unique… but then if you look at Dagenham, you look at East London, they have exactly the same problem. They want to build for their local people or at least try to build for that. And they can’t.
"We have housing need on the island that isn’t being met because developers of the green field sites are saying ‘we can make a quick pile building three or four-bedroom housing for retirees to move to the island’. But ten years down the line that knackers our adult social care costs.”
Seely is as absorbed as anyone in the day-to-day drama of Brexit, and he’s been increasingly vocal in recent months about the threats posed by a revanchist Russia. But, when he's not focusing on the high-stakes world of international bust-ups, the MP says he uses every chance he can to buttonhole ministers and officials into loosening the "completely unacceptable" housing targets he believes are holding his constituency back.
And it's just housing where Seely believes he's battling the orthodoxy. His demands form part of a weighty ‘Island Vision’ document that the MP has put together since being elected, and which he says is the result of a decade spent thinking about the lives of its residents - from the "fairly rubbish" privatisation of its ferry services to the need for new higher education institutions to try and stop a brain drain. "This idea that the island has to export its young as soon as they want to go to university and they never come back until you’re retiring: that’s what needs to change."
He’s particularly keen to see more money pumped into the island’s public services, which cost more to run because the island remains difficult to reach and enjoys less of a benefit from investment in neighbouring constituencies than would be the case on the mainland. Seely says he looks with particular envy at the way much smaller Scottish islands are handed a generous premium - vowing to keep badgering Whitehall for a funding settlement that reflects its circumstances. "They get properly funded. Shetland and Orkney get an extra £6m for being an island… We don’t get that. So I find that very frustrating."
Seely tells The House that he has made a conscious decision not to flatter islanders into thinking there's a quick fix to problems that have built up over decades - an approach, he admits, that opens him up to charges of "failure" at the next election. "I took the risk that either I play it safe and say everything’s perfect and only really talk about the stuff I might be able to achieve or say, actually, this is what we need over the next 5, 10, 20 years, however long I’m here as an MP, this is what I’m going to try do to."
Either way, Seely tells us he's hopeful he can spark a serious debate about the Isle of Wight's future. And he makes clear he’ll be doing all he can to ensure the new guard of Tory leadership hopefuls pays attention. "Whoever wants to be the next leader, if they want the best part of 1,000 votes from the island, I think it’s in their interest to suggest that we need to have a look at how isolated communities are funded… You want our support? You’ve got to offer the island a deal."
Bob Seely is Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight