Tory control in the housing growth areas will have real effects – for good and ill
There has been much made in the trade press since the general election of the progress made by the Conservatives in the shire counties, particularly in the four areas earmarked by the deputy prime minister for concentrated housing growth in the next 10 years - Kent, the Thames Gateway, Milton Keynes and the M11 corridor.
The argument generally runs that the more Tories there are, the fewer houses will be built and the worse this will be for housebuilders. But how likely are these two arguments, and what will it mean for housebuilders?
The Conservatives cemented control of Kent, Essex and Northamptonshire – home to the four major growth areas – on a platform of opposing development in general and housebuilding in particular.
This view was reflected in leaflets and in countless speeches on election night. And it is more than likely to be reflected in regional housing numbers and the housing figures in local plans and local development frameworks over the next few years.
But surely the scope for Tory-led disruption regionally and locally is limited by the fact that the current Labour government is determined to force through the “step change” in housing supply? Not as much as you might think. Conservatives control the regional and most of the local political structures, so at the very least they can severely slow down any progress in delivering the 1.1 million homes that Prescott has pledged to build in the South-east by 2016.
There is also a real sense in Conservative circles that their time will come again in just four or five years. Gordon Brown will enjoy the shortest of times in Number 10, and the next leader of the Conservative party will ride into Downing Street and hand control of housing numbers back to the (Conservative) local authorities. The logic among Conservative leaders in local government is simple: let’s hold out for a bit and these difficult housing numbers will go away.
Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of Kent council and the Conservative local government leader, is calling for “a renaissance of local democracy”. What this may mean is a new era of locally-agreed housing numbers, reduced densities and a return to the suburban semi. Local democracy probably means housing numbers should be decided locally and not regionally or nationally.
The argument generally runs that the more Tories there are, the fewer houses will be built
So what does all this mean for the housebuilding industry?
Locally-agreed numbers mean fewer new houses – a bad thing. But it is also likely to mean fewer apartments and more homes with gardens – good. More homes acceptable to the community and local politicians could help to reduce the opposition to housing and therefore speed up the planning process – good.
Also, fewer houses built will only fuel house price inflation – bad, at least for the economy.
What is important is that we don’t rule out the importance of local Conservative control and what it will mean for developers. Equally, the prospect of this dominance - which could extend to Westminster – may not be a bad thing.
Looking forward to the district and borough council elections in 2007, the Conservatives will only strengthen their position. The messages that played so well in May will be further developed and promoted as they wait patiently for Gordon Brown to call a general election.
Tom Curtin is managing director of Green Issues Communications