Yesterday saw a much needed Westminster Hall debate initiated by my colleague Steve Brine MP on Government Support for First-Time Buyers. In May 2009, some fifty per cent of all buyers were taking their first steps into the housing market. That figure has now fallen off a cliff, and is just twenty per cent of all buyers. The timing of the debate had an extra importance given the recent announcements by the Government in relation to reinvigorating right-to-buy and the NewBuy scheme. The debate was well attended by coalition MPs and there was a notable absence of Labour members save the Shadow Treasury spokesman.
One of the key themes I sort to stress, borne out by the absence of Labour MPs at the debate, was that issues relating to housing and support for home ownership are in the DNA of the Conservative Party reaching far back into our history, and it should not be identified as an issue solely for the Left. Be it social housing or private home ownership, as a Party we know that the ability to build true communities and not just an assemblage of houses is founded on people having access to the housing ladder. Macmillan out built Labour, Ted Heath enabled 60,000 people to buy their own homes, and Thatcher opened up property ownership on a scale few believed was possible at the time.
In his 1948 work ‘Alternatives to Nationalism’ David Eccles spoke for Conservatives through the ages when he concluded: “Men are partly selfish and party idealist, and they give their best when they believe they have a reasonable chance to put something in their pockets and to realise a fragment of their dreams.” This is not about social engineering it is about hard working individuals and families being in a position to make good on their efforts to build a life for themselves in their own bricks and mortar.
This has always been a cultural battle as much as a political one, as we have sought to overturn the sneering belief of so many on the left who see housing as a means of social engineering, when the vast bulk of people – 86% when last surveyed, according to DCLG – see home ownership as a natural objective, and would be keen to make the move to do so if they could afford it.
The great tension in housing provision has always been between providing quality and quantity of housing. Nye Bevan rightly believed that nothing was ever too good for the working classes – and if you were to visit such social housing projects as the Scheepvarthuis in Amsterdam (an early social housing project), you would see properties infinitely better than the tens of thousands of council homes thrown up in this country. Bevan actually wanted council housing to be so good that the middle classes would flock there from the suburbs.
And maybe there is the nub. For too many on the left, their attitudes to home ownership have been denoted by an antipathy to the ‘lop-sided’ existence of suburbia as Modernist architects Alison & Peter Smithson referred to it in their essay entitled ‘Urban Reidentification’. In the same essay, they went on to say that ‘the refuse chute takes the place of the village pump’ in the high-rise world of social housing they envisaged. What a hideous notion that the avant-garde French Garchey waste disposal system should somehow have become the left’s leitmotif for a better world! We never reached the apotheosis of European provision of social housing in any case – our showcase public housing, whilst architecturally imaginative, was never quite as treasured by residents as by architectural historians, as the example of Park Hill in Sheffield makes clear.
Perhaps it is best summed up by CP Snow in Corridors of Power – a Labour peer – when his chief character visits the home of a colleague on the edge of Clapham Common which he describes as ‘detached, but only just detached’ – that ever so slightly condescending twitch of the centre-left net curtains when it comes to class.
And what does this long record of our Party demonstrate? When the Conservative Party is supporting the strivers in our society it is at its best. Housing is not solely a policy issue for the Left. All too often we can apologise for our past and don’t celebrate what we have actually done. This can lead us to be reticent about standing up and making the case that the Conservative Party has done just as much on issues like housing as any other party, and we should continue in this vein now. Nor should we allow our coalition colleagues in the Liberal Democrats to plant a yellow flag next to housing policy and claim it for themselves, as they have done on so many other core Conservative issues.
The biggest tragedy of all to emerge from housing policy under Labour was the collapse of right-to-buy to a low of just 15,000 as criteria was tweaked, discounts were whittled away and it was generally made harder to climb the housing ladder. A shocking legacy of this is that in 2010/2011 only 800 of the 2.1 million housing association properties were brought by tenants. Couple this with the Labour legacy of 50,000 people in temporary accommodation it is apparent that we need take no lessons from the Opposition when it comes to supporting strivers.
No wonder the campaigning group Priced Out are trying as hard as they are. Why should my generation not have the opportunities the previous one had? Two and a half million 20-34 year olds are living with their parents, many of them precisely because they are priced out of the market. It affects in particular labour mobility, since they can’t move to where the jobs might be if they are priced out of that market.
Yet I hear the criticism that schemes such as NewBuy does nothing other than help the big builders. Such critics should visit the stalled developments housing developments in my constituency where residents are frustrated that an uncompleted estate means the Council not adopting the roads, residents suffering poor quality pavements, in an area which attracts anti-social behaviour because so much of it is deserted. Building sites are also dangerous to children, who are attracted to play on them. Stalled developments are not just a commercial issue, but a social issue too.
Social tenants are staying put for longer, subsidised out of the private rented market, and so the turnover needed to accommodate those who find they need social housing explains lengthening waiting lists. Even those that are re-let rarely seem to go to the newly vulnerable. It would be easy and cheap politics to cite the union leaders in council housing, but the fact there are almost 2000 social tenants in Westminster who earn more than I do must surely give us pause for thought.
The fact housing associations are not mandated to make property available to buy – a fact Government will not be changing – creates an ever diminishing pool from which purchases can be made. If we are replacing affordable rented properties for every one sold with the new cap, I hope the Government ensures these are made available for purchase.
Tenant mobility is the key to social mobility – be it geographical or tenure mobility. Trapped in a housing cul-de-sac with no exits. Social housing should not be confined in ghettos, but rather spread across the community.
The decision announced just this week that receipts from right-to-buy will be invested into affordable rent housing is, in my view key. MPs will be only to aware of the frustrations constituents have about waiting lists for social housing. By providing people with a ‘tenancy escalator’ into home ownership and then ploughing the receipts back into social housing stock, we can hopefully see some movement for those seeking entry into social housing for the first time. Tenant mobility is the key to social mobility.
As I stated in the Westminster Hall Debate, social housing is a trampoline for Conservatives, not a quicksand out of which people can never escape. Different MPs cited different ages for the ‘average’ first time buyer – 35, 37, 39. But the one thing all those ages had in common was that the average was rising. That should give us more than just pause for thought.