Robin Hodgson: It’s time to have a grown up conversation about population growth and housing need

25 Oct

Lord Hodgson is a Conservative peer and author of the new Civitas paper, ‘Britain’s Demographic Challenge‘.

Population growth and housing need are inextricably linked. It’s time to be honest about this.

Some Conservative commentators have voiced their dismay at the prospect of controversial planning reforms being watered down.

They say that the Conservatives are the party of the home owner and champions of home ownership, so the more home owners there are in the country, the better the party’s long-term prospects. And home ownership is increasingly the preserve of the rich.

But as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott said “to be conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown”.

Conservatives, by definition, want to conserve, whether it be tradition, culture, institutions or the countryside. And it is increasingly the case, no more so in the area of housebuilding, that the policies of ‘progress’ and those of conserving are irreconcilable. Too often those voters in the latter camp are overlooked despite the fact they are evidently numerous and increasingly activist. Of course, today’s new homeowners are tomorrow’s NIMBYs.

The widening gap between house prices and incomes cannot be explained by a single factor, but population growth is self-evidently a major contributor, yet it never features in the debate.

If our population grows by a net 350,000 a year – the level of recent years – we are going to have to build 150,000 houses every year. As long as the population continues to rise, the building will never stop.

We also know that millions of people are deeply unhappy about this especially in areas which will effectively be urbanised by housing developments. Enduring settlements and communities are a key driver of happiness and standard of life, and changing them too rapidly will always be incredibly unpopular.

It is naïve to suppose that, if the ONS projections prove accurate, and we have to build two cities the size of Manchester by 2040, there will not have to be some hard choices to be made and/or unintended consequences to be faced. So what is to be done?

It must be time to have a grown up conversation about population growth which is a huge driver of housing need. In this discussion, we have to be honest with the electorate that there are trade offs in this debate that will need first to be explained and then accepted. For example, accepting the implications on absolute economic growth if population falls, and if it rises the inevitable need to build on green spaces.

What about our wildlife and ecological diversity, our national food security – at present we only grow 50 per cent of our food – and the provision of water – the Environment Agency says that we will run short of water in the South East of England by 2035.

No less important, what does this all mean for our climate change treaty commitments? Shortly the UK will host the world’s biggest climate conference where governments including the UK’s will opine on net zero targets and conservation. Yet population will scarcely be mentioned.

As David Attenborough said “all of our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with more people”. This is true in the UK where our sustainability ambitions should be considering population growth to be credible.

Yet successive governments have been unwilling to undertake a strategic review of all these trade-offs preferring instead to believe that “it will be all right on the night”. It won’t be.

Amongst the general public there is concern about what this means for themselves, their children, their grandchildren, their communities, their way of life. That is why opinion polls reveal that about two thirds of our population believe that the country is overcrowded and that governments need to reflect this in their policy making.

Of course governments cannot have total control over population changes, but it’s possible to have some and to be seen to be taking the electorate’s views seriously.

The answer must be to establish an Office for Demographic Change – along the lines of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – to undertake long-term independent strategic, transparent, evidence based analyses of what lies ahead. This would result in a more considered, balanced cross-government approach; it would also reassure the general public that their concerns were being listened to and addressed.

I am due to submit a private members bill to the House of Lords early next year to create such a body. I hope colleagues from all sides of the House will support me in this endeavour, but particularly my fellow Conservatives – whose party was created to preserve things in the name of a more stable and more cohesive society.

In recent years the western democratic model has produced governments that seem incapable of addressing the big, structural challenges. And the gap between the Government and the people remains as big as ever on fundamentally important issues like housing.

The head in the sand approach has brought us to where we are today and, as Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The country wants this issue to be gripped and it’s time the Government acted.