Housing: An alternative history – Part 5

Kristian Niemietz

August 25, 2023

…continued from part 4

In the 1930s, it was a building boom which dragged Britain out of the Great Depression. In the second iteration of the 2010s, Cameron intends to repeat that exercise on a much bigger scale. He wants to drag Britain out of the slump which followed the Great Recession by unleashing an unprecedented boom in housing, transport and infrastructure. 

Cameron starts his second term with a “big bang”. He gives the green light to a number of projects ranging from mildly to highly controversial: the third runway at Heathrow, fracking, nuclear energy, and water reservoirs. He finally pulls the plug on HS2 and diverts the funding to various small- and medium-scale transport infrastructure projects, none of them spectacular on their own, but all with excellent cost-benefit-ratios.

It does not make him popular. But it does create a buzz of excitement. Britain is moving. Britain is building. Britain is getting somewhere. 

Against this backdrop, the Labour Party tries to develop a left-wing version of YIMBYism, an issue which dominates its 2015 leadership election. 

One candidate is particularly ill-suited to that task, namely the surprise candidate, the MP for Islington North. He is not interested in NIMBY-vs-YIMBY debates. He wants to deliver generic anti-capitalist rants. In a different timeline, this would have been enough to excite Britain’s anti-capitalist youth. In this timeline, “Corbynmania” never really takes off. In this timeline, Siobhain McDonagh, perhaps the most YIMBY of the Labour MPs, becomes the Labour leader instead. Her election sets the tone for the next five years. Most debates are now about how to deliver more development, not whether.

As the British housing boom takes off, Cameron, despite remaining in office, takes a few steps back from day-to-day politics, turning himself into a more presidential figure. He spends most of 2016, 2017 and 2018 consolidating the housing revolution he started. In order to defuse accusations that he is “concreting over the countryside”, he also starts a programme of upgrading sections of the countryside that are clearly unsuitable for development, via various renaturing, rewilding and reforestation initiatives.  

In 2019, he moves on to a newfound hobbyhorse, which nobody else quite sees the point of, but which most of his colleagues treat as a harmless eccentricity: pandemic preparedness. Towards the end of the year, he calls for a General Election in early 2020 but declares in advance that he does not plan to run again. He believes that his job is done and that whoever will succeed him will continue his housing revolution in some way. 

The commentariat’s verdicts of the near-decade of Cameronism are varied, but none of them are enthusiastic. Cameron has not truly won over the country. The Left cannot forgive him for austerity, and the traditional Right cannot forgive him for his YIMBYism (even though they stop short of advocating a return to the bad old days of NIMBY Britain). Younger, socially liberal conservatives see him as a successful moderniser, but they also think that he has not done enough to “detoxify” the conservative brand. He has his fans among housing and planning nerds, but there are not enough of those to count as a proper constituency. 

Still – while there is no enthusiasm, there is a lot of grudging respect for the outgoing Prime Minister. Friends and foes alike accept that he has succeeded in getting Britain moving again. 

Today, in 2023, headlines with titles like “Whisper it, but… maybe Cameron was right, after all” are commonplace. Britain’s housing crisis is over. Housing affordability ratios are falling rapidly, as real wage growth has outstripped house price growth for several years in a row. If present trends continue (as most property experts predict they will), these ratios are set to return to the levels last seen in the mid-1990s, when an average household was able to afford an average-priced house with less than four annual gross salaries. 

The changes in the rental market are even more drastic. In the bad old days, too many tenants were chasing too few rental properties. Landlords knew that and behaved accordingly. Today, the situation is almost reversed. Tenants have become picky customers, and landlords had to learn to become service providers. 

The British economy has received an enormous productivity boost because more people are relocating from low-productivity to high-productivity areas. The Housing Benefit bill is dropping, saving billions of pounds that can be passed on to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts. Work incentives have improved, as fewer people need Housing Benefit. More people move into full-time work. Higher employment rates and less welfare dependency mean less welfare spending and higher tax revenue. 

Consumer prices fall across the board, as retail stores, pubs, restaurants, hotels etc also benefit from lower property prices. Inflation still rises in 2022 and 2023, but unlike our timeline, the term “cost-of-living crisis” never takes off in this one. As the Ukraine war starts, new sources of energy supply start to come on the market, leaving Britain much better prepared to weather this storm than last time. 

The Britain of this timeline is not just more prosperous, productive and secure than the Britain of the last timeline. It is also a politically less polarised country, which is more at ease with itself. The radical leftward drift of the Millennial generation never happened in this timeline. Millennials have remained a fairly apolitical generation, and while some have gone through a socialist phase, most of them have grown out of it by now. 

Looking back on his second time as Prime Minister, Cameron is pleased with himself, but not proud. He is painfully aware of how anti-climactic his involuntary time travel adventure was. In fiction, time travel stories are usually about heroic missions to change the course of world history in a dramatic way, from killing Hitler to preventing the Kennedy murder. 

In contrast, the only thing Cameron had to do to make Britain a much better place was to allow people to pile some bricks on top of other bricks. 


Written by Kristian Niemietz

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

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