Robert Halfon: The Conservatives were the party of affordable and social housing – and must be again

24 Feb

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Conservatives need to remember something forgotten about our past. We were once the party that brought social housing to the people that needed it throughout this country.

In 1951, Tories went into a General Election with the phrase, “housing is the first of the social services”, proudly sat at its heart. Echoes of this could be heard when the PM last summer committed to “not just to defeating Coronavirus but to using this crisis to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades.” The first of which he said was housing. He is right, but I think we can go further with the housing we need.

The 1951 manifesto made clear that access to a good home, an affordable home, was central to productivity, family life and good health. This sentiment – this vision – is as relevant today as it was then. The difference, however, is today we have lost our way in making that vision achievable.

Harold Macmillan, the then minister in charge of delivery, ensured that the Government beat its target of 300,000 homes a year, and good homes at that. I know this, because I am proud to represent a small part, in the form of my constituency of Harlow. Our town was created as part of the post-World War housing boom, started by a Labour government but accelerated by a Conservative one.

These homes were true homes as well. Safe, secure, affordable and designed to be far better than what had come before. New Towns like Harlow were – and some will be surprised by this – incredibly popular. They were also made possible by Government investment in social housing. Housing that ensured everyone, whoever they might be and whatever they did, could benefit from the delivery of this vision that everyone should have a home, whatever their background.

In 1979, the BBC broadcast a show about Britain’s New Towns and visited Harlow. It interviewed both those who had moved out of shoddy accommodation in London, as well as the children for whom the town had always been home.

Harlow had been gifted, by both Labour and the Conservatives, a proud community who lived in quality social housing that allowed them to prosper. Children had a great start in life. They had fields to play in, good local schools to attend, sculptures to inspire them, their own bedrooms for big ideas to be imagined.

Unfortunately, this is where the story of Harlow and of housing takes a turn.

Nobody, not Macmillan, not Churchill, or Atlee for that matter, intended the post-War investment to be the final investment. To build the New Towns and that be that. Yet, in a way, this is what happened. Investment in housing wound down and the focus on the delivery of social housing took a 40-year back seat to reach a position like the one we are in now, with fewer than 7,000 new social homes a year being built.

A failure to deliver a positive vision for housing has consequences. Consequences whereby families are placed into, what can only be described as human warehouses – unsuitable, former office blocks – away from their communities, their families, in an act of social cleansing by predominantly London Labour councils. There’s no room to build a better life. There is one room and in it you eat, you watch TV and you sleep.

Families are in unsafe conditions. Exposed to vulnerable people. Parents are exhausted, taking their children on long commutes to distant schools. This is not how we used to do it. It is not a fair offer – it isn’t a Conservative offer.

Fortunately, the MHCLG Secretary of State is well aware this is not good enough and is taking steps to improve such conversions, demanding quality housing and more say by local councils.

However, this doesn’t tackle the underlying problem: that instead of measuring our housing success in the places we build and opportunities we bring, we engage in a relentless pursuit of “units”. We are doing this the wrong way round. Homes should not be measured in units delivered but in lives transformed.

Temporary accommodation, which is what many office-block conversions through permitted development rights often are, cost councils almost £2 billion in 2019/20. That’s a 55 per cent increase since 2014/15 and is money that by and large we pay to private landlords for providing unsuitable homes.

This is absurd. And we see it right across England. For example, in Blackpool, almost three-quarters of private renters are having to rely on housing benefit and yet the local authority is blocked from applying for grants for social homes due to the current rules. That doesn’t then mean public money is not spent, but instead of spending it on building homes to be proud of, we send it into the hands of private companies.

I share the ambition of the Prime Minister and the Government to unlock home ownership for a new generation. I am proud to be a part of the party that has done so much to champion it through measures like Right to Buy. But I also see no contradiction in being both the party of the home owner and the party of social housing. Quite the reverse.

By building the social homes we need, we may in fact be truly demonstrating that we are the party of home ownership. Not doing so, has made home ownership an impossible dream for too many.

Being stuck in an overpriced private rental market is the real barrier to ownership. According to Shelter, 63 per cent of people in private rented households have absolutely no savings at all. Two in five (40 per cent) of the population have less than £100 in savings. It is just not possible to save for a deposit if your money is having to all go into the pocket of a landlord.

Moveover, overcrowding has massively increased in the rental sector – from 187,000 homes in 2011 to over 300,000 right now. An affordable, social home would be.

Perhaps some Conservatives will be fearful of trusting local authorities with something like building homes – they fear they would be wasteful and slow. Surely, however, just as we can support academies as the model for delivering our schools, we should consider the role of Housing Associations in being a private route to social housing.

But for Housing Associations to succeed, we need a Conservative Government to unlock their potential. Because right now, social homes just aren’t being built. In fact, more than half of local authorities delivered no social rent homes at all last year and 50 local authorities have now gone five years without delivering a single social home.

We need to enable and incentivise better about what we need. Housing Associations are currently building a lot of shared ownership because that’s what policy is pushing them towards. Even without any extra investment we could change this by simple measures like increasing the flexibility provided around grant rates.

For example, the current grant rate for social housing is too low in most parts of the country and that means Housing Associations have to build more market sale and shared ownership to cross subsidise. If we removed the grant rate cap, or raised it, they could build more social rent.

We also need to look at how the current regulations and tax systems benefit the big developers making homes for private sale. The scales are too weighted towards helping the big boys at the expense of the communities they are building in. The recent plan to expand the small sites exception will make this worse. Currently, new developments of up to 10 units are exempt from providing any community benefit or affordable housing. The proposal to increase this exemption to between 40 and 50 units should be reconsidered.

Instead, the Government should look at how that contribution is made more effective. They have said they will replace the current method through Section 106 contribution with a new infrastructure levy, recognising that right now the system isn’t doing enough. However, the proposals need a lot more detail and could benefit from embracing existing good practice that we see in places like South Gloucestershire, where the Conservative-run council continues to be number one in the country for building social housing.

Finally, the Government should listen to the advice it received from the former Cabinet Minister, Oliver Letwin. His review into why homes weren’t getting built pointed directly at the cost of land. Innovative proposals around how to address this by changing the way we interpret phrases like “market value” exist and are worthy of consideration. Not least, because the status quo, in which land can rocket by 275 times its value following the grant of planning consent, are only creating perverse incentives to trade in land instead of building actual homes.

This Conservative government should not be afraid to fix the rules that are currently breaking our country’s housing market.

At the end of 2019, we earned the trust of the country by promising that we would make their tomorrow better than their today. During this pandemic, our Prime Minister rightly promised to build back better. We should, and we can, do all this if we again become the party of social housing.

The cynical politics of emissions targets and COP26. How government is poised to declare success while delivering failure.

25 Jan

Dissenters can go figure.  Yes, China is still stacking up new coal plants.  But it is also the world’s largest invester in renewables.  Meanwhile, America was pouring record amounts into them – even under Donald Trump.

Those on the right who don’t believe in man-made climate change can protest as loudly as they like about this shift in the zeitgeist.  Their own capitalist system is turning its back on them.

BP’s plan to increase its renewables twenty-fold, cut oil and gas production by 40 per cent, and not to enter new countries to explore for either is only the tip of a non-melting iceberg.

Slumps, black swans and wars could slow the pace of change.  But the direction of travel is unmissable.  Fossil fuels are out – at least as traditionally used – and renewables are in.  The rejectionists might as well seek to shout down a hurricane.

In many ways, this is all to the good.  Energy security demands decreasing our reliance on, say, Russian coal.  Emissions reduction suggests not looking to our own for a replacement.

We have no quarrel with “the science”: as Roger Scruton pointed out, “the greenhouse effect has been known for over a century and a half”. But giving the shift to renewables a thumbs-up in principle is not necessarily the same as doing so in practice – that’s to say, when a plan is on the table.

The Government has a series of targets for reducing emissions.  Two of the best-known are the ban on the sale of new diesel, petrol and hybrid cars, and the zero emissions 2050 target, rushed in by Theresa May as a legacy policy.

We want to look at these targets, and the pace of change which they suggest, through three lenses: those of people, politics and Parliament. First, people.  Our columnist James Frayne writes on this site that he “has probably done more work on the environment than any other single issue”.

He finds a class and age divergence among support for environmental policies.  They’re important to everyone, more so to younger, urban voters – and in different ways.

To many of those people, Greta Thurnberg is a hero.  Lots of those older, provincial ones have never heard of her.  Their concerns are concrete, not abstract: “excessive use of plastics, the destruction of areas of natural beauty and animal welfare.”

Yes, there’s an overlap.  But how will they react when or if governments tax their hybrid cars, bar the coal they use for their fires, hike their electricity bills, export their jobs and ban them from eating meat?

Cambridge University is blazing a trail for that last policy – a reminder that urban, younger people are concentrated in Planet Remain, and provincial, older ones in Leave Country.  Welcome to the latest version of culture wars.

Now, it’s true that voter protest so far has been muted.  Which brings us to our second p: politics.  Britain’s democracy is geared up to a five-year election cycle.

It is built into the very stuff of Parliament, therefore, for MPs to fixate on the date of the next election (due in this case to be May 2 2024) – and often to look no further.

To make a complex story simple, green technologies mean subsidies, subsidies mean jobs, and MPs want those jobs for their constituents.  Who can blame them?

Hence the rush of articles on this site, more numerous by our count than on any other subject, from backbench MPs making the case for green technologies that will mean “green jobs” in their seats.

What about the bills?  They will mostly arrive on the doortsteps of taxpayers, consumers and business in the medium-run, if not the long-run.  And “in the long run we are all dead,” as Keynes put it.

So, third, to Parliament.  We quoted Scruton earlier on the known factor of the greenhouse effect.  But withheld until now the context of the quote.

The greenhouse effect “implies that, other things being equal, the accelerating production of carbon dioxide will cause the earth to warm”, he added, before briefly citing one of those other things: “fluctuations in solar energy”, he added.

There is more detail in his book Green Philosophy, but one would have thought that this position (the greenhouse effect is a cause of global warming – even the main cause, but not the only cause), would be shared by some on the Conservative benches.

Even if not, one would certainly have imagined that, by now, a band of Tory MPs would be pointing out that the bills for this green programme will come in sooner or later – at which point, a choice may open up between mulcting the taxpayer or losing those jobs.

Perhaps we are not reading Hansard closely enough, but we can find no evidence that such a group exists.  That suggests a new dimension to change in the Commons.

It’s often said that modern MPs are increasingly rebellious (not least by this site).  But they are so in a particular kind of way.  More stand ready to put the interests of their constituents ahead of the blandishments of the whips.

But the Commons seems to be producing fewer Andrew Tyries – the awkward, angular former Treasury Select Committee Chairman, now a peer, who campaigned against climate change orthodoxy, for all his establishment status.

At any rate, climate change sceptics outside Parliament warn of terrible things to come – higher electricity bills, for example.  We take the point, but query the scale – because we suspect that rebellion will finally come when the proverbial hits the fan.

To put it plainly, try telling Robert Halfon that his Harlow constituents must pay higher fuel duty to help meet some government target.  He will revolt.  As will all those other backbenchers who have no ideological or constituency stake in the push for zero emissions.

Maybe government will manage the transition, after all.  But with COP26 coming down the tracks, and with a mass of coporates, lobbyists and cheerleaders clinging to its wagons and rooftop, this is a good moment to take stock.

Reducing emissions and securing supply are only two of a quartet of main policy objectives, the other two being keeping the lights on and keeping prices low.  Remember: the Tory manifesto promised to lower energy bills for those in social housing.

How can these objectives be squared?  Finding an answer doesn’t require a drive-by shooting of green policies.  In some cases, we need more. For example, Rachel Wolf and others have made a strong case for a carbon tax, which is robust regardless of targets.

Nor are these wrong in themselves.  For example, it would make sense to have a timetable for the take-up of Flood Performance Certificates – documents that set out the severity of flood risk for homes, and steps that could be taken to mitigate it.

And there are worse things in the world than politicians declaring success (“we’ve made great progress towards our zero emissions target”) while delivering failure (i.e: backing off some of the tax hikes necessary to actually hit them).

But the landscape ahead looks to be one of conflicting policy objectives, punts in new technologies that won’t always come off, pressure on consumers, business and taxpayers, jobs that won’t always be sustaintable – and further damage to the standing of politics.

In which case, a small boy ought to halt the wheezing emperor of government policy, and point out not that he has no clothes, but that he is overdressed amidst this warming weather.  And would move more lightly were he to cast off the 2050 target.

ConservativeHome will run a mini-series on climate change policy tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday.

Robert Halfon: Johnson delivers for the workers but Starmer could win back their votes

1 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Blue-Collar Boris

I think readers of ConservativeHome will know my columns well enough by now that when I want the Conservative Government to be better, I am not afraid to say it. But it is also important to dance a jig or two, when they get it right.

Yesterday’s speech by the Prime Minister was a blue-collar speech in tooth and claw. When he said that he would focus on the people’s priorities, he really meant it.

For communities like mine in Harlow, and no doubt those in and around the blue wall, there will be a sigh of relief that there is no return to austerity, that the NHS is King, that schools and colleges will be better funded and housing and infrastructure will be built across our land.

Above all, we now have an extraordinary and exciting offering to our young people – an opportunity guarantee, comprising a choice between an apprenticeship or a work placement. This is a real policy that could make a difference to winning back younger voters as well.

The reason why this Boris Johnson speech was so important was not just the significant policy content, but because it set the direction of travel for the Conservative administration. After a few rocky weeks seemingly being bogged down in the Coronavirus mire, the Prime Minister is back on the front foot, setting out a Tory Workers’ agenda, that millions of lower income workers not only relate to, but can also get behind.

They have been reminded of why they voted for us again. Of course, saying that we are going to ‘build, build, build’ is easier than the building itself, but now the course/trajectory/path has been set, it is up to the rest of the Government to start constructing our New Jerusalem.

Starmer unstuffed

Patrick O’Flynn was one of the early media forefathers (and proponents) of blue-collar conservatism, way back in the days when Notting Hill was regarded as the preferred venue of the Tory éminence grise – a little unlike Dudley, where Johnson was yesterday. So, he is someone worth reading up on or listening to.

However, his recent article for The Spectator entitled, ‘Starmer is stuffed, filled me with absolute horror, because his line of argument, if accepted, would instill a large dollop of complacency in every Conservative.

In O’Flynn’s view, Starmer’s history and background, his inability to develop blue-collar policy, the cultural wars and the Tories’ reputation for economic competency, means everything will be alright on the night.

If we, as Conservatives, believe the above to be true, that way disaster lies; not only will we lose our majority at worst, or have a hung parliament at best, but our historic red wall gains in the North will crumble away.

Let me set out a few reasons why:

First, Keir Starmer is radically de-Corbynising the Labour Party – almost by stealth and under the cover of coronavirus. Almost all the way through the Shadow frontbench, from PPS’ to the Shadow Cabinet, moderates are being promoted. If you look at the calibre of Labour MPs – like Shadow Business Minister, Lucy Powell, or Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas Symonds – you know that the Labour leader is being serious when he wants to present an alternative Government. Meanwhile, the NEC and Labour General Secretary are passing into the hands of social democrats, rather than the far left.

Second, whilst Starmer may not have had his Clause IV with the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, it is certainly a Clause 0.4. In one fell swoop, Starmer has shown the British public that he will not tolerate the anti-semitism that has so infected his party over the past few years – and given a pretty sure signal that he wants to enter the doors of 10 Downing Street.

The idea that the public will care about Starmer’s past record as Director of Public Prosecutions is as fanciful as voters being negatively influenced by Johnson going to Eton, or his early and controversial newspaper columns.

Third, never underestimate the power of Labour. Their message of helping the underdog and the poor is enduring, still popular and extremely potent. They are not going to sit back and let the Tories rule for eternity. The psephological evidence shows that public opinion is leaning closer and closer towards Starmer for Prime Minister.

The latest Opinium poll shows that Starmer is preferred to lead the country by 37 per cent of voters, compared with 35 per cent who back Johnson. While the Conservatives remain four points ahead of their opposition on 43 per cent to Labour’s 39 per cent, the gap has closed from over 20 per cent in February and early March, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. Scaling the Tory wall is far from insurmountable.

Fourth, on policy: Just because Starmer is a ‘metropolitan’ does not mean that his policies will be ‘metropolitan’, too. His Policy Chief is Claire Ainsley, who wrote an important book, The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes.

If her views, alongside those of a more communitarian nature as proposed by thoughtful Labour thinkers like John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham (with whom Johnson’s former Political Secretary, my colleague Danny Kruger, is collaborating on big society policy development), or Maurice Glasman, then they could actually have an exciting message to the public, winning minds as well as hearts.

If Tories are busy painting flags on planes, or building Royal Yachts, or shooting ourselves in the foot as we are wont to do on a regular basis – whether it be on free school meals or the NHS surcharge – and Labour are focusing on the cost of living, skills and genuinely affordable housing, I think it is pretty clear voters are going to be looking at the Labour offering, once again.

Having said that, if we come up with more of the blue-collar narrative, I set out in the first part of this article, alongside significant tax cuts for the lower paid, then perhaps O’Flynn could be on to something.

I just wish he wouldn’t say it, nor any other right-thinking individual. Conservatives have to take the next few years as if we have a majority of one, and remember that the political left want the Tories gone, and will stop at nothing to kick them out of Downing Street.