John Hayes – 2004 Speech on Housing

Below is the text of the speech made by John Hayes at Toynbee Hall on 24th May 2004.

We plant trees for those born later – and we build houses for them, too. Well – that’s how it should be. In recent times we often build – like we shop – for immediate consumption, on an excessive scale and with little regard for the future. Today I want to set out a different vision. A new vision. Built on age-old principles.

First, I will propose that the idea of the home – and its protection – should become a defining theme for Conservatives as we seek to become Britain’s government again.

Second, I will expose the twin threats posed by Labour’s gargantuan housebuilding plans –to Britain’s precious countryside and to the prospect of urban renewal.

Third, I will describe the priorities that will guide our housing policy.

The home and Conservatism For me, the idea of the home is an emblem of Conservatism.

To talk about housing is one thing. To talk of the home lifts us to a different emotional plane. The difference between a house and a home is like the difference between calling a parent a mum or an acquaintance a friend.

The home stands at the bright centre of our lives. Home is where lives start and end. It is where we return at the end of each day and at the end of all of our days. But there are far too many people – in our otherwise wealthy society – who either do not have a home or else the kind of home they deserve.

Frustrated aspirations to home ownership, overcrowding and fuel poverty are painful symptoms of what’s wrong with Britain. So what do Conservatives have to say in response? What do we have to say about homelessness and broken or abusive homes? What do we have to say to the young couple fearing that they’ll never be able to afford a first home together?

The Conservative Party must have specific and credible answers to these questions. Today I will describe the policy direction which has emerged from our dialogue with the organisations represented here today and many others besides. But, for me and Caroline Spelman – who I’m delighted is here – providing better housing is not simply about the mechanics of policy. Policies must be built on sound foundations. Ours will stand on our commitment to:

· help more people to afford a home of their own…

· ensure everyone has a warm, safe home – built-to-last – those least advantaged just as much as those of good fortune…

· give local communities control over how they develop…

· protect and enhance our precious environment…

· and regenerate urban Britain – building high quality homes on brownfield sites.

These are our goals. Goals at the heart of authentic Conservatism. The idea of the home can define a Conservative agenda for the twenty-first century. Homes are a symbol of social justice – of private ownership – of security – of independence from intrusive government – of local identity – of embryonic community life…

The duty of Conservatives is to help people to find a home that supports their aspirations and anchors them for life’s journey. That duty involves protecting people from forces that make that journey more difficult. On the first day of his leadership Michael Howard spoke of this duty.

“No one should be over-powerful”, he said.

“Not trade unions. Not corporations. Not the government. Not the European Union.”

“Wherever we see bullying by the over-mighty, we will oppose it.”

And we oppose the over-mighty planning system. It’s bureaucratic, unresponsive and esoteric. It frustrates developers and bemuses council tax payers. It’s intrusive when a light touch is needed; yet ineffective when it comes to saving greenfields or ancient woodlands. Heavy-handed regulation limits the scope for innovative development but fails to stem urban sprawl.

Conservatives know that the energy of the market powers the drive to social renewal. So we support protection of tenants from bad landlords BUT without making those protections so onerous that private landlords are discouraged from letting their properties.

We believe that private developers should build long-lasting homes in character and scale with the built environment and local landscape BUT to do so we know they need an efficient planning system which assists their businesses to plan.

And we support enterprise BUT oppose Gordon Brown’s eagerness to scrap controls on out-of-town hypermarkets introduced by John Gummer for the last Conservative government. Because Mr Brown’s permissiveness threatens market towns and high streets as much as it threatens the countryside. Conservatives recognise that the market and government can be good servants of the common good but neither should become so powerful that they make it harder for families to lead free and responsible lives. The idea of the home and all that it represents helps Conservatives to rediscover the things that really matter.

Labour’s approach to housing

You can tell how much Labour value housing. John Prescott has been put in charge. The Deputy Prime Minister has now turned his attention to housing. Recently, he welcomed the Treasury-commissioned Barker report. The Deputy Prime Minister is arguing that Britain needs at least two million more houses. That’s more than enough houses to gobble up land equivalent to two cities the size of Birmingham. That means for every year – two towns the size of Middlesbrough will eat into England’s shires. Mile after mile of the world’s finest countryside – Britain’s green and pleasant land – would be bulldozed. There’s a greenfield site near every Briton that he proposes to build on and every community will be blighted by his plan to slacken planning regulations.

Mr Prescott’s other misplaced passion – Regional Authorities – will overrule the wishes of local people and impose sprawling developments on reluctant communities. Labour’s policy has mutated from ‘predict and provide’ to ‘dictate and provide’. But one-size-doesn’t-fit-all. We should encourage local diversity and allow local government to come up with local solutions.

I’m clearly not alone in finding Labour’s approach frightening. The House of Commons Committee that shadows John Prescott has warned that a major housebuilding programme is unlikely to reduce house prices. They know that it’s low interest rates, macroeconomic factors and the relative unattractiveness of alternative investment opportunities that drive up house prices. A supply-side solution to the problem of house price inflation will be slow and crude.

The same Committee warned of “excessive pressure on the water supply and other natural resources” and the significant costs of providing “the transport links, education and other facilities which new neighbourhoods require”.

Similarly, the Campaign to Protect Rural England has said: “any such massive increase in the rate of building of new homes would have unacceptable environmental impacts and would impose enormous infrastructure and service costs.”

Mr Prescott’s impending blitz of Britain’s countryside would be distressing enough if it was justified. But Labour’s approach is based on fundamentally flawed assumptions. Mr Prescott would lead you to think that there was a shortage of available dwellings. In fact: there were a million more dwellings than households in 2001. An excess that has grown by 300,000 dwellings since 1991.

Labour’s approach would lead you to conclude that population growth is outstripping expectations. In reality the 2001 census revealed that there are 900,000 fewer people in Britain than previous government estimates. Labour’s approach would lead some people to believe that housebuilders are desperate for more land. In fact: planning permission has already been granted for 250,000 homes.

Labour’s approach might lead you to think that they’d cracked the problem of empty houses. In fact: more than 700,000 homes stand empty in England tonight – and have done so for at least six months.

Labour’s approach would lead you to believe that new home construction had a big impact on house prices. In fact: data from the Council of Mortgage Lenders has shown that 90% of property transactions involve existing homes.

Myths and errors fuel Labour’s unacceptable approach to housing. Rural and urban communities are both being let down by Labour. Much of rural Britain would be concreted over – destroying vast swathes of the world’s finest countryside. And the opportunity to renew urban Britain – a task that includes housebuilding but also requires the introduction of school choice programmes and a zero tolerance of drugs and crime – would be missed yet again.

A wholly different approach is needed.

Conservative housing policy

The direction of Conservative housing policy has been inspired and informed by many meetings with developers, pressure groups, charities and housing experts. And I’m very glad that some of those people are here today. I’ve listened carefully and I’m certainly committed to a continuing dialogue. The priorities that will characterise a future Conservative government’s housing policy are:

· Aspiration.

· Social justice.

· Community.

· Harmony.

· And sustainable regeneration.

(1) Supporting the aspiration to own a home

Our first policy priority addresses the crisis of affordability. The Barker Report revealed that only 37% of new households in England could afford to buy a home – down from 46% fifteen years previously. The situation in London is especially serious. In 1993 a home in London cost approximately four times the annual income of those in the bottom quarter of the earnings scale. In 2002 eight times that group’s annual income was required to buy a home. No wonder 35% of our capital city’s first time buyers need help from parents or others to buy a home. The problem is so acute that the Government has been forced to introduce schemes to help the capital’s key workers find homes. But on-the-job houses are today’s tied cottages. They are a quick fix for the symptoms – not a cure for the cause of the affordability crisis. This is not the portable share of equity or assistance with mortgage eligibility that would help key workers to buy a home of their choice – where they want.

The affordability pressures on key workers and first-time buyers will only worsen if Labour gets the opportunity to load graduates with tuition fees debts. It will deteriorate still further if young people, living with their parents and slowly saving for a deposit, are hit by the Liberal Democrats’ plan for a local income tax.

Affordability is about people – not buildings.

Setting affordability targets ignores the plain fact that houses become unaffordable as the market changes. So, we must help people to afford the homes that are available. Promotion of shared equity will be at the heart of the Conservative Party’s help for first-time buyers, key workers and other people currently struggling to fulfil their aspiration to home ownership. First-time buyers who can’t afford to buy 100% of a house might be able to afford a half or two-thirds. Building on the policies introduced by the last Conservative government– a government lucky enough to have as housing ministers Sir George Young and David Curry – we will work with the lending industry, builders and local authorities to bring about an equity revolution enabling millions more people to get on the property ladder.

In my own area I know there is consideration of how a fresh approach to shared equity can help provide affordable local housing. Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy was one of the defining ideas of her first government. It enabled millions of people to own their own homes.

But now we must go further. I want people to have the opportunity not just to buy the place they occupy but to buy a home of their choice. This opportunity – rooted in the concept introduced by the last Conservative government but never enthusiastically endorsed by Labour – will mean looking at how we can promote and extend transferable discounts to help tenants buy a home in the marketplace. By achieving a better pull-through from social housing this should ease pressure on the public purse.

Conservatives also want to extend the right-to-buy to housing association tenants and we will consult housing associations and tenant representatives on how this policy can be implemented.

Our aim is to create a more fluid social housing sector. One that increases the sector’s capacity to help those people desperate for a home because it also helps others to move from social housing to market housing.

(2) Social justice: all Britons to have warm, safe homes – built-to-last

The policies I’ve just outlined on affordability will most help people on lower incomes.

But the Conservative commitment to ensure more people – whatever their income – live in warm, safe homes doesn’t end there. The scale of the empty homes crisis is a scandal when the number of homeless people has rocketed under Labour. Priority homelessness has risen from 102,650 in 1997-98 to 129,320 in 2002-03. These aren’t just damning statistics. Homelessness blights futures and costs lives. Homeless children are more likely to suffer ill health. Homeless adults are more likely to succumb to addiction. Roughsleepers are thirty-five times more likely to commit suicide than you and I. The Government has moved 4,000 families out of bed and breakfast to meet a pledge. But as Barnado’s say 9,000 families in B&B aren’t covered by it.

Conservatives believe that families placed in temporary accommodation by social services – who say the Government don’t count – need help, too. We should redefine suitable accommodation and aim at a new measure of what is appropriate. I seek the advice of Shelter, Crisis, Barnado’s and others on achieving this.

We will also take action to correct the mismatch between people and the properties they want and need. Many people – who as they get older – have more special needs but are living in unadapted, large houses whilst large, growing families are living in overcrowded accommodation. We must enable those who want to downsize to do so, by reviewing the availability of accessible, sheltered and extra-care housing. And by working with the care homes sector rather than against them – as the Government seems to do.

Getting a better housing match could also helped by the provision of better information. I want to see local authorities maintaining an ‘accessible homes register’. Such a register would assist disabled and elderly people in their search for suitable housing and potentially save local authorities a fortune because of the reduction in unnecessary adaptation and readaptation of houses. Even so, much of the housing stock is unsuitable for people with disabilities. With a 300,000 shortfall in wheelchair-accessible homes, urgent action is needed.

In England alone there are over 700,000 homes that have been empty for at least six months. Another 100,000 are estimated to be empty in Scotland and Wales. Many more properties – that fall just outside the definitions set by the Empty Homes Agency – are empty, unused and deteriorating. At last – after continuous pressure from Conservatives and others – the Government has reacted by offering an amendment to its Housing Bill.

But, as usual, they’ve missed the point.

A fifth of these empty properties are owned by the public sector! Dilatory local authorities must be obliged to let homes quickly. In the private sector incentives are normally preferable to penalties. The challenge is to encourage homeowners to make vacant properties available for rent. We need to look again at legal, administrative and tax incentives and disincentives of bringing these homes into use. Before Labour destroys more of Britain’s countryside it would seem sensible to fill these empty homes – over 300,000 of which are in London, the South-East, the South-West and the Eastern region.

There are particular housing problems in rural Britain. The exception site policy has provided important opportunities for incremental development in rural towns and villages, but the Government is unenthusiastic about it. Not only is there a case for its maintenance, but also one for extending the opportunity for developers and local authorities to cross-subsidise affordable housing, through the construction of market houses in rural areas.

We also propose to look again at incentives to the use adapted redundant farm buildings for housing. But it’s no good building rural homes to suck in second homeowners and buy-to-letters. The allocation of affordable housing should prioritise local people: those with roots, family or a job in the countryside.

Urban areas that have been gentrified suffer, too, and we will look at how this can be addressed. I’m personally interested in ideas put forward by Gary Streeter MP for a new system of housing tenure – called ‘local hold’. Homes that can only be bought by people with long-standing, local connections.

Social renewal means helping those in most need. 380,000 households do not claim the housing benefit to which they’re entitled. Those households are being failed by an over complex system. David Willetts MP, the Conservative spokesman on welfare issues, is already committed to find remedies to this failure.

(3) Community – giving local communities control over how they develop

My third policy theme is the need to give communities control over how they develop. Lawyers have said that the Government’s planning bill will keep their profession employed for years. Rather than undertaking necessary reform of planning Labour’s bill will throw the whole system into a period of massive upheaval. It’s a bill built on irreconcilable objectives. The first, purportedly, to make the planning system more transparent and effective. The second, unforgivably, to transfer more power to unaccountable regions. A more remote system can never be better at recognising local needs and responding to communal sensitivities.

We need more user-friendly, efficient planning. There will be no ‘dictate-and-provide’ under the Conservatives. We will trust local communities; reduce government dictats; counter the undercapacity in the planning system – and give developers a fair deal by setting tougher statutory planning timetables. Conservatives understand that real communities evolve. They’re not designed by economists and imposed by Whitehall. Local people – not Mr Prescott – should decide what kind of houses they want and where they should be built.

In its rush to build more and more houses Labour is stripping local authorities of strategic planning powers and giving them to regional planning bodies that cannot be as sensitive to the needs and traditions of local communities. The Leader of Kent County Council, Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, has rightly warned that: “Local areas are in danger of losing their local identity to the man in Whitehall. Local people are in danger of losing their local voice and ultimately their countryside”.

The Barker report calls for an even greater erosion of local democracy. New regional planning executives would deliver housebuilding goals that would be “independent from local government”.

Yet, ironically, the Government’s unwillingness to provide adequate infrastructure is inhibiting development. Kent alone has an allocated land bank of 41,000 acres – largely undeveloped – because of a lack of infrastructure.

The transfer of power from local people to remote regional bureaucracies is supported by the Liberal Democrats – but will be reversed by the Conservatives.

(4) Harmony – the protection and enhancement of our precious environment

Housing isn’t just about where we live but how we live and who we are. Housing policy and planning should give everyone the opportunity to live in a safe, warm, well-designed home. Our aim must also be to mix generations, help families to stay together and build houses that add to the landscape and locale. Everything built should add aesthetically to what is already there. This vision must inspire all development. Social housing should never be ugly; it should never be bad housing.

For too long the most disadvantaged of our countrymen have endured indecent homes. Good local authorities are already working to ‘decent homes plus’ because standards set by the Government aren’t good enough. Shelter tell me that 500,000 households are officially overcrowded. An estimated three million live in fuel poverty. This just isn’t acceptable.

I congratulate South Holland District Council who are building village council homes to a standard set higher than the private sector equivalent. They are showing that the design and quality standards that win awards must be the standard for all. Every local authority should develop supplementary planning guidance through local design guides and specific site appraisals – as the best already do.

I think of the ambitions of the Victorians and the way those ambitions were reflected in the way they built. From public lavatories to public libraries the Victorians built to last Every building – a statement of local pride.

We must raise our sights today and build warm, secure homes that people are proud to live in and others pleased to gaze at. The Prince of Wales has also modeled a very special vision of community in Poundbury. Tenants live next door to owner-occupiers. Workshops and offices are close to the homes of the people who work in them. All of the building materials used complement the local environment.

All over Britain market and social housing should harmoniously meet environmental objectives. Britain’s housing industry is already building concept homes that recycle ‘grey-water’ and harness bio and solar power. Our age should match the ambition of the Victorian age with a commitment to environmentally sustainable housing.

(5) Sustainable regeneration – high quality homes for urban Britain

Brownfield land is a stream and not a reservoir. Brownfield development will be a central component of Conservative housing policy. Because, as we know, as land use changes development opportunities emerge. A housing policy that is seamlessly connected to a vision of urban renaissance so that, once again, our cities become places where families want to live and have their children schooled. Urban development has an unhappy post-war record in Britain. There has been an inhuman concentration on purely utilitarian objectives. Britain’s post-war cities, towns and villages have often been disfigured. Local identity corroded by an aesthetic orthodoxy which has given us buildings out-of-keeping in scale, design and materials with their surroundings. Time and again hastily-built, thoughtlessly-designed houses are demolished ahead of time at significant cost to the taxpayer. The planning system has routinely torn communities apart.

Fortunately there are signs of better practice in regeneration today. Where regeneration projects are owned by local people they are much more likely to be sustainable. At Perry Common in Birmingham, local people – local champions – have modeled a kind of regeneration that meets local needs and is in harmony with community wishes. I know that Wimpey, Redrow and Bovis all have particular developments in different parts of Britain that illustrate what the best can be like.

Smaller builders also often excel. I was proud to be a guest at the Federation of Master Builders awards lunch where the outstanding success of projects across Britain was recognised.

The planning system – and government guidance that supports it – must enable best practice to become contagious. Such high quality housing depends upon a high quality construction industry and I welcome Kate Barker’s emphasis on increasing take-up of building industry apprenticeships. The challenge for government is to give builders the chance to excel – the challenge for builders is to rise to the task. Too often local authorities, Government departments and quangoes hold on to land that could be developed.

We will review the planning, regulation and tax treatment of contaminated land with a view to making it safe and then developing more of it. In contrast, anxious to meet its brownfield development targets the government has crammed high density housing into suburban back gardens. More than half of the ‘brownfield land’ which the Government claim has been previously developed is people’s backyards, gardens and the like.

Labour is doing nothing to prevent ‘town-cramming’. Nor are they stemming urban sprawl. The inner green belt is being built over. The percentage of greenbelt land developed has doubled under Labour. 91% of Mr Prescott’s much-trumpeted new greenbelt land is actually in a handful of remote parts of northern Britain – faraway from the development pressures of southern England. Mr Prescott’s greenbelt is clearly elastic.

The Conservative ‘brownfield first policy’ will be heralded by the drawing up of a ‘Blacklist of Blight’. The people of Portsmouth recently saw the beginning of the demolition of the long and much-loathed Tricorn Centre. Other great British cities have been blighted by buildings that shout too much and insult their neighbours.

Over the next twelve months I’m going to tour Britain and put together this ‘Blacklist of Blight’. In some cases an infamously ugly building will be blacklisted. In other cases a derelict dump spot – a crumbling and disused factory or the site of a demolished warehouse- will be added to my list of Blight.

Some of this land will be suitable for new housing. Sometimes for greening over. Once fully evaluated by the next Conservative government all blacklisted buildings and sites will become priority candidates for a mixed provision of high-quality housing and community services.

Building houses on brownfield sites by redesignating former commercial and industrial land will be a priority for that government. There is a great opportunity for Britain’s property developers to use their world class skills to rejuvenate urban Britain.

Conservatives are also ready to reflect on some of the factors driving the scale and volatility of demand for housing. Volatile demand makes it particularly difficult for developers to invest with confidence. So can this volatility be ended?

Stabilising the demand for housing raises controversial issues in the same way as increasing its supply… They’re just different controversies.

The growth of the buy-to-let and second home markets – partly a result of the relative unattractiveness of alternative investment vehicles – hardly helped by Labour’s mishandling of the pensions industry – is one area of concern.

Family breakdown is another. I believe that much more could be done to help couples to fulfil their aspirations to start a family home and to stay together once children have arrived.

Conclusion

Owning a home is the number one financial objective of most working families. Families that are being let down by Labour. During the horror of World War I soldiers dreamt of ‘home fires burning’ – and then Lloyd George promised ‘homes fit for heroes’. Now, as then, if housing policy is right – many of society’s other goals become easier to achieve.

A child learns more quickly if he or she isn’t moving from one temporary form of accommodation to another. A warm home improves the welfare of children and older people, in particular. Thoughtfully-designed housing estates prevent crime. Where housing tenure and size of dwelling is mixed different generations are more likely to look after one another.

Borrowing – prudently secured on a home – can support small business start-ups. It is in the interests of good, holistic public policy that we enter a virtuous circle of good housing feeding better health, education and welfare and these, in turn, supporting a good housing policy.

A focus on the home will also help Conservatives to reconnect with the British people. Helping everyone to have a good home reinforces traditional Conservative strengths like our commitment to property ownership and independence from government.

But the principles and policies I’ve also outlined point to equally deep to sometimes neglected Conservative beliefs. The emphasis on protecting the countryside and ending urban blight renews our party’s aesthetic and conservationist character. The emphasis on tackling homelessness and the affordability crisis is in tune with the Conservatism of Disraeli and Shaftesbury. Conservatives know that we are all diminished when some of us are diminished. And Conservative housing policy requires new vision. New vision. Age-old principles. A journey to deep-rooted Conservatism. A journey home.