Alex Crowley: NIMBYs may be vocal, but they do not represent the majority – who want more houses built

24 May

Alex Crowley is a former Political Director to Boris Johnson and microbusiness owner.

If you’re the type to browse the Conservative Party poster archive on a rainy day you will come across all manner of delights.

The classics are all there: “Labour isn’t working”, “What does the Conservative Party offer a working-class kid from Brixton” and so on. From the stark black and white text of Saatchi to the hand drawn art of the 1930s, the themes remain constant: tax, security and jobs.

What struck me though, as I rolled through to the present day, was a theme that has faded over the years. Housing.

Take one from 1929: “800,000 houses built by the Conservatives in the last 4 years.”

Or one from 1951: “Had enough high prices house hunting?”

In 1963 it was about building 1,000 houses a day and in 1987 we proclaimed that a million council homes had been sold to their tenants.

Housing was part of our core offer because, at a base electoral level, building homes and expanding home ownership was necessary and popular.

But we don’t lead on it anymore.

Today it is estimated we are some 1.2 million homes short of what we need. With a whole generation of people who believe they will never get on the property ladder, building homes should be more electorally popular now than ever before.

However, talk to most councillors and MPs, particularly in the South East, and they will tell you “over development” is deeply unpopular. (They support more homes, of course, but only in the “right” places.)

This is why successive administrations have both set ambitious housing targets and left the actual mechanism to deliver them – the planning system – well alone.

Until now.

As noted on this site, the most genuinely reforming part of the Queen’s Speech is planning reform. But it’s also the most likely to be diluted beyond recognition, in the face of intense opposition from the parliamentary party.

I will leave the policy nuances to others, suffice to say that our planning system is optimised to overweight the views of NIMBYs. Until that changes, we will never build enough homes.

Back to the politics. Under Boris Johnson, the party has positioned itself to dominate the current electoral landscape. Corbynite on public spending, Genghis Khan on crime, Grimes on culture all wrapped in sunny, Brexit-y Boris.

But there is one bit missing.

No 10 know full well that home ownership is the single biggest predictor of someone being a Tory voter (apart, of course, from voting intention). Hence constant subsidy for first time buyers and now this attempt at unlocking the system once and for all.

Yet those who worry about the future of the party in the traditional shire strongholds will tell you that being pro-development is a definite vote loser. A slap that could sting every bit as much as Brexit.

They will point, as David Gauke did, to issues like “unpopular” local housing plans as a reason for Conservative underperformance.

Planning reform risks driving these homeowning, Remain leaning, upper middle-class voters further into the arms of Starmer’s Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens.

It’s a legitimate concern. According to one estimate, over a recent three year period, there were almost two million objections to planning applications. That’s about 80 an hour.

But here’s the thing. Housebuilding is actually popular, has been for years and this is true in every part of the country and for every demographic.

I’m not talking in the abstract. When the long running British Social Attitudes survey asked if people supported housebuilding in their area, almost 60 per cent said yes. This has increased from just 28 per cent 10 years ago. Voters have noticed a rocketing house price to wages ratio.

This silent majority exists wherever you care to look, most obviously among renters under 35, but also in the most apparently NIMBY of places:

  • 48 per cent of those who live in a “country village” (compared to 28 per cent against)
  • 55 per cent in the South East
  • 53 per cent aged over 66
  • 54 per cent earning over £4,000 a month
  • 50 per cent who already own (compared to 28 per cent against)

But, you might ask, is this not a classic case of people telling pollsters what they think is socially acceptable, masking their true selfishness?

Curious about this, some pro-housebuilding colleagues and I started a campaign to find out.

The Just Build Homes campaign works on a simple premise – our planning system is optimised for existing homeowners with plenty of time, money and expertise at their disposal to object. Their voices are amplified way beyond their numbers.

The majority who would benefit the most from housebuilding – younger renters – are effectively excluded from the decision-making process. This needs to change.

In the accompanying notes to the Queen’s Speech, the Government noted that just three per cent of people engage with planning applications. One can guess where these people stand.

So, our campaign went into leafy areas to see if we could engage and persuade the silent pro-housebuilding majority.

We made it digital, easy and quick. We kept our message very simple – build more homes – and we targeted excluded voices.

The results? In Havering (outer London) we registered over 300 supporters and counting. In Sevenoaks, we got over 100 supporters for a single scheme. All in a matter of weeks. Most schemes struggle to break 10 supporters over many months (with opponents in the hundreds).

We found this audience were highly receptive to engagement, with a high rate of conversion to support. They are desperate to see more homes built.

The political point here is that there is a massive pool of new voters for the party. There is significant electoral value, especially in the shires, to be pro-housebuilding.

If you believe that younger voters moving into Tory areas from London, bringing with them their “liberal” voting habits, represents a threat then consider this.

In a worsening housing crisis, planning reform is a political opportunity to grab these voters. What do they value most? The same thing those of us lucky enough to be homeowners do. A home for our families – a foundation upon which to build a life.

If that’s not conservativism, I really don’t know what is.

Our political future lies as much in being the party that unashamedly pursues building more homes as it does in levelling up. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will also give us a complete lock on the electoral map.