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We would do well to learn from Macmillan’s housebuilding success

1954: Harold Macmillan, then-housing minister | Alamy

4 min read

As housing minister in the early 1950s Harold Macmillan hit his house building target, helping to pave the way for the Tory Party's 1955 election victory

Ten years ago, Andrew Gimson wrote an article for Conservative Home entitled: “How Macmillan built 300,000 houses a year.” It is worth re-reading by those who believe that housing is rising rapidly up the political agenda, and that the Conservative Party needs to raise its game if it is to have a credible story to tell at the next election.

Private renters face rising rents, as landlords withdraw from the market; the average age of first-time buyers is rising inexorably as house purchase becomes less affordable; and local authorities face mounting pressure in meeting the pressing needs of those on the waiting list.

Harold Macmillan hit the annual target in December 1953, an achievement which helped pave the way for the party’s victory in 1955. Totals were displayed in his department along the lines of a cricket scoreboard. He upset the department’s permanent secretary by bringing in Sir Percy Mills, a self-made businessman, as director-general to oversee the housing programme. He also had Ernest Marples as a junior minister who had built up a successful construction business. Half the homes were built by local authorities.

What can we learn from all that?

Macmillan was already a big hitter; he had strong support from both the then-chancellor – Rab Butler – and the prime minister, Winston Churchill. He was housing minister from the general election in October 1951 until a few months before the next general election in 1955. (We have had six housing ministers in the last year alone.) So a strong team, with time to do the job and political commitment from the top and recognising that the public sector has an important role to play.

Of course, much has changed. Housing was second only to defence as a priority in the 1950s, whereas it is now lower down. But rising; there can be few families who aren’t worried about where the next generation are going to live.

There are many answers, so here are a few.

On private renting, we need to move from an over-reliance on the small private landlord – most of whom provide a good service – to the system that exists in most of Europe. There, long-term institutional funds have invested in accommodation for rent – offering long tenancies and professional management.

Housing was second only to defence as a priority in the 1950s

We are taking tentative steps in this direction, but it needs to be turbo-charged if we are to build the homes for rent that are needed. There are billions of pounds in pension funds, which would benefit from safe investment in bricks and mortar with an income at least keeping pace with inflation; and professional managing agents, including registered social landlords, who would manage them responsibly.

On construction, we need more off-site construction with improved quality and efficiency, better safety records, and less dependence on the weather and, over time, more economical. Again, we are taking tentative steps but much more is needed if capacity is to be increased.

Then we need to have a construction industry less dependent on the major builders – we need more local and medium-sized builders who have been squeezed out of the market. The planning system can help here by breaking down planning consents into smaller sites.

What about planning? Yes, we have a sclerotic planning system which hopefully the Levelling Up Bill will streamline and simplify. But there are over a million homes with planning consent that have not been built. That is where the focus should be in the next few months.

Looking further ahead, the government has recently made unwelcome announcements in response to a threatened rebellion in the Commons, making it more difficult to build the homes that are needed. As a former MP, I recognise those local sensitivities. But they may be more than counter-balanced by a more powerful broader-based reaction against a party that doesn’t take housing seriously. 

Lord Young of Cookham is a Conservative peer and former housing minister

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