Housing is now politically important for a number of distinct reasons.
First, all parties are committed to significant increases in the number of new homes built, with Labour also concerned to increase the proportion of social and affordable units provided. Second, progress is slow. The Conservatives have led the government for almost eight years, without a breakthrough to anything like the numbers built in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Third, there is evidence that the public is becoming less sympathetic to ‘regeneration’-led housing improvements, even in places where there has not been controversy of the kind seen in Haringey.
The government is overwhelmed by Brexit. There is little time for any kind of thought-through policy about the economy, migration or any of the other issues raised by the UK’s imminent departure from the EU. Twenty-one of the 33 months between the EU referendum and the UK’s departure from the bloc have passed, yet the government cannot deliver a consistent position, even about transition. Housing and other issues are relegated to also-rans.
Sajid Javid, to his credit, has attempted to keep devolution moving along and has sounded tough on housing numbers. But to deliver a radical up-tick in housing will require ‘emergency powers’ type interventions which would involve fighting public opinion on many fronts.
There is generalised support for more homes at lower prices, but in many neighbourhoods there is outright opposition to the scale of change needed is to get house prices and rentals down to a tolerable level. Opposition is not only from NIMBY-style people in affluent areas but also, increasingly, community activists who are fighting to halt redevelopment of inner-city areas. Those who want to protect green land, heritage, views, landscape, the environment and existing council estates share a common vision of ‘no change’. Conservatism is a left- as well as a right-wing characteristic.
The big question is how far the government will really be willing to take on anti-development vested interests? A handful of MPs can stop Ms May’s minority government at any point. If it comes to aggravating MPs about housing in such a way that Brexit becomes more difficult, housing will not be built. It’s as simple as that.
Tony Travers, director, LSE London