Housing: An alternative history – Part 3

Kristian Niemietz

August 23, 2023

…continued from Part 2

Britain’s housing revolution starts with an extremely unimaginative measure, which fails to address any of the deeper flaws in the planning system: a huge increase in mandatory housing targets, coupled with a tightening of the penalties associated with not meeting them.

This measure has many critics even on the YIMBY side: it reinforces the antagonistic dynamics of the current system, in which local communities perceive housing development as something alien that is forced upon them against their will.

Cameron knows perfectly well that this cannot be a lasting solution. He knows that ultimately, the whole system will need to be overhauled, and the incentives within it need to change. Housing development needs to be turned into something which communities welcome, or at least, something which they are comfortable with.

But he also knows that changing incentives and attitudes will take time. He wants to start with a shock to the system, here and now. He wants to start with a strong signal that the days of NIMBY obstructionism are over and that a building boom is about to start. He wants to change expectations.

House prices are not just determined by supply and demand as they are now, but also by expectations about future supply and demand. In 2013, even though there has not yet been an increase in housebuilding, the expectation that a large increase in supply, and a drop in prices, is just around the corner, becomes firmly entrenched. This changes behaviour here and now. At any given moment, there are hundreds of thousands of households in Britain, most of them retired or close to retiring, who are toying with the idea of selling their house. In order to downsize, retire to somewhere more quiet and rural, or leave the country altogether, retiring to the sunnier climes of Spain or Southern France. In 2013, a lot of these “marginal sellers” decide that the time to sell up is now. This leads to a one-off spike in the number of properties coming on the market. In this way, Cameron gets an advance on the building boom he has yet to deliver. It is as if it had already started.

As long as the housing targets are just abstract numbers, the resistance against them remains tolerable. But as those numbers begin to translate into actual construction projects, the resistance grows louder and louder. A growing number of Tory MPs side with the NIMBYs. By the summer of 2013, Cameron has a full-on backbench rebellion on his hands. His Home Secretary, Theresa May, resigns in protest.

The Tory party is now hopelessly divided into a YIMBY wing and a NIMBY wing, the former led by Cameron, the latter by Theresa May and Theresa Villiers. Communication between the two sides breaks down. Rumours of a party split keep growing. Cameron repeatedly makes it clear that he is not seeking any kind of compromise or accommodation with the NIMBYs, whose opinions he considers not just wrong, but positively illegitimate.  

In autumn 2013, the government’s ratings plummet, with polls consistently showing that unwanted housing development is the number one reason for that. The same polls show that millions of Tory voters, but also plenty of swing voters, would consider voting for a May-Villiers party. 

May and Villiers sense that this is their chance to strike. Together with a dozen of Tory MPs, they leave the party in protest and set up the Independent Group for the Protection of the British Countryside. This group – which soon turns itself into a fully–fledged new political party – enjoys a brief honeymoon period, during which they come dangerously close to depriving the Cameron-Clegg coalition of its parliamentary majority. They seem to be the new common-sense party, which is most in tune with public opinion.

But after a series of media gaffes, their lucky streak comes to an end at the beginning of 2014. Under a bit of scrutiny, their “programme”, such as it is, quickly falls apart.

For a start, it becomes clear that its representatives do not really agree on anything other than their dislike of houses. But that is not even their main problem. Their main problem is that while they are all united in their rejection of Cameron’s housing plans, they cannot agree on a common reason for rejecting them. Every press release or media statement they issue seems to contradict the previous one.

One day, they claim that there is no housing crisis: it is all just a big lie made up by the developer lobby. The next day, they claim that there is a housing crisis, but that it is a demand-side rather than a supply-side problem. Two days later, they say that there is a supply-side crisis, but that building more houses is not the answer. The day after, they say that building more houses is the answer, but not in the places where Cameron, Boles and Jenrick want to build them. One day, they manage to claim, within a space of five hours, that Cameron’s plans will lead to the concreting over of the English countryside, and also that Cameron’s plans will fail to make a meaningful difference to housing supply.

The May/Villiers party manages to alienate different parts of the political spectrum in different ways. They alienate the Left by issuing a statement which effectively blames immigrants for the housing crisis. A week later, they alienate the Thatcherite Right by blaming the housing crisis on the Right To Buy. The party rejects some housing development plans on the grounds that they would overwhelm the local infrastructure, but simultaneously, they also reject plans for infrastructure development on the grounds that it would increase demand for housing. They reject private developments on the grounds that it would just be luxury housing for the rich; they reject social housing developments on the grounds that it would just lead to ghettoisation. They reject applications for blocks of flats, on the grounds that what Britain really needs is family housing; and they reject plans for family housing by branding them “car-dependent urban sprawl”.

These contradictions are, of course, nothing new. NIMBYism is not about “legitimate concerns”. It only consists of excuses and a worldview built on excuses is bound to be inconsistent. But thus far, nobody seemed to have noticed. Now, the media relishes calling out NIMBY inconsistencies. A BBC interview, in which a pitiless Andrew Neil runs rings around a woefully unprepared Theresa Villiers, goes viral. The public finally sees NIMBYism for the scam that it is.

At the Independent Group’s first party conference, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. During Theresa May’s speech, five of the letters on the wall behind her, which spell the slogan “Yes to more housing – but the right kind, and in the right places”, drop off the wall. May, facing the audience, does not see what is happening behind her, and irritated by the constant giggles from the audience, is thrown off course. May’s voice goes increasingly hoarse during her talk, and eventually dies before she can deliver what were supposed to be her killer lines.

The new party drops in the polls. One of the defectors realises that he backed the wrong horse, and tries to flip-flop his way back into the Conservative parliamentary group. Cameron, however, blocks his readmission. 

Paradoxically, even though the Lib-Con coalition’s majority is now a lot slimmer, Cameron ends up in a stronger position. Objectively, the majority of his MPs are much closer to the May/Villiers group than to Cameron. But he can now tell the remaining would-be rebels: if your main motivation for being in politics is to block development – there is a party for you. Go to them. Cross the floor. You’re free to leave. But it’s a one-way street. There will be no turning back for you. 

With the NIMBYs in his own party neutralised for now, Cameron’s housing reform agenda begins in earnest.

Continue to part 4…


Written by Kristian Niemietz

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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