Eric Ollerenshaw OBE was the Member of Parliament for Lancaster and Fleetwood from 2010 to 2015.
There is something like an old adage that once an MP becomes a Minister, they forget the problems they came into politics to solve – and too easily become the mouthpieces of why the solutions are too problematic..
Not that I would dream of thinking this has affected any of my former colleagues elected in 2010, many of whom I believe shared a passion, which I hope is still there, to free up people’s lives and opportunities. To be fair, all new ministers have to face that built-in resistance to change that is part and parcel of large bureaucracies, public or commercial. At the same time, today’s particular set of Ministers have had the Brexit planning process affecting their workloads. The palpable instability it has brought to Parliamentary and Party management must also have added to the problems of Ministerial planning and policy development, let alone in some key ministries, the change and change about of the actual person who is Minister. However, it still has to be said, to have had eight housing ministers in eight years is stretching credibility, even with the above factors, a little bit too far. And I would add to that – particularly in Conservative Governments.
From Harold Macmillan in the 1950s, providing the new houses the country was desperate for after the War, to the iconic “Right to Buy” of Mrs Thatcher’s governments, it was the Conservatives who have seen homes and a “property-owning democracy” as crucial to giving people one of the essentials of human life while at the same time providing an individual stake and responsibility in their own country. It could be argued that these historical housing reforms were a crucial part in delivering both votes and long-term support for Conservative Governments and their wider economic reform agendas. Indeed, it has also been commented on before, that the decline in the last 20 years of the ability by 20-year olds and 30-year olds to buy their own properties has had a direct impact on the level of Conservative support in those age groups. There was nothing like taking on the first mortgage to really focus the mind on the critical issues of national debt and interest rates levels and consequently on the Party that has always focused on policies to manage those exact issues.
To be fair though, we introduced ‘Help to Buy’ in 2013 and in the 2015 General Election we fought on extending ‘Right to Buy’ to Housing Association tenants while there is also ‘Support for Mortgage Interest’ – all good policies but nothing as electrifying as the hundreds of thousands of new homes Macmillan pushed through or the hundred of thousands of new property owners Margaret Thatcher created.
We are certainly beginning to see lots of new properties being built, whether it be the new developments on the edges of many of our villages and smaller towns, or the vast number of high-rise glass palaces of new flats (or should I say apartments?) in our large cities, alongside some fantastic conversions of old industrial and office buildings, again mainly in our larger cities. Something is happening. Though when I walk past a vast development of nearly 5,000 new properties near where I live, according to the signboard it is all down to the local Council (Labour), the local Mayor (Labour), a housing association, and a developer – no mention of the large Government grant to that local Council and local Mayor. Sorry this might seem petty in an article about policy, but as an activist who has always believed in taking the message to the doorstep, it doesn’t half irritate that the thousands who walk past those signboards are being given a permanent and biased message – surely some part of the Government bureaucracy could be responsible for ensuring a balanced message on the signboards of major capital schemes funded by Government?
Or let’s take a bigger issue, those thousands of new flats mainly in our major conurbations, some on buy to let it is true and therefore rented, but however bought, are bought on leasehold. This peculiar English form of leasehold that does not give real ownership and something that most people who buy this way never fully realise the drawbacks or the long-term implications on their security of tenure, until they have acquired their lease. Just consider that in all those shiny new flats and conversions, we are creating thousands of new leaseholders to the extent that in London now, according to some figures, a third to a half of home ownership is now leasehold, while it is reaching nearly half in Manchester. One in five properties now across the country are leasehold and growing.
There was a time when we thought leasehold would simply whither way, and to be honest, there can be no excuse for the 1.2 million individual houses or more which are leasehold, mostly brand-new properties facing the scandal of freeholds sold on to Companies only interested in raising cash from increased ground rents and service charges – hardly an advert for a property-owning democracy. As I understand it, the Government is quite rightly banning it for new developments since 2017 but still leaving the question remaining of those already caught in the trap before 2017.
To be fair, the Law Commission has been asked by the Government to report this year on making it simpler, easier, quicker, and more cost-effective for leaseholders to extend their leases when they near the end or to buy the freehold and to actually examine options to reduce the price payable. In my mind, this has the potential to be the next big Conservative housing revolution – that is, of course, if we still see ourselves as the Party of a “property owning democracy”. This could be something really positive to offer to nearly one in five homeowners across the country. Just think of it for a moment – this could also be a positive and a distinct message to allow us entry into those new tall glass palaces in our big city centres with a policy that is consistent with the best traditions of our Party.
But the issue remains as to whether we have Ministers who are bold enough to remember they are still politicians and long enough in post to grasp the nettle of this next great housing reform. When the Law Commission reports this year, will we have ministers willing to grasp a radical agenda and MPs willing to support it through Parliament against the large commercial property interests?
Well, it looks hopeful, given that our ministers have at least given the steer to the Law Commission to do something better in the interests of all leaseholders. But what I cannot understand is why this isn’t available now to sell on the doorsteps and the intercoms in those important local elections in May this year and next year?
Before ministers quite rightly shout that they cannot make actual commitments before consultation reports are received and white papers issued, perhaps as Conservative politicians they could realise that the mere fact they recognise the problems and are considering the means to address them, is important to the electorate. So, let’s have more of this out there in Government statements, ministerial speeches, and Party Literature, because as far as I can see, those significant new leaseholders across the country have no idea a Conservative Government actually understands their situation and is actively looking for solutions!