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Nick Boles MP and affordable housing #LittleGuyConservatism 2/6

By Peter Hoskin
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“The government is on track to preside over the lowest level of house-building since the 1920s.” Those are the words of Policy Exchange’s Alex Morton — and they go some way to capturing the great housing problem in this country. But there are other indicators, too. Did you know that the average age of a first-time buyer is now 35 years-old, up from 23 years-old in the Sixties? Did you know that there are 1.8 million households on the waiting lists for social housing? Did you know… oh, you get the point.

This alone would have given Nick Boles an excuse to enter his new job as planning minister with trepidation: the challenge is so great in itself. But there’s more. As Paul has pointed out on numerous occasions, there are also immense political pressures bearing down on anyone tasked with creating more housing. On one side, the Treasury, who, for the purposes of growth, probably wouldn’t mind a further, faster, stronger approach to house-building – so long as it doesn’t cost too much. On the other, assorted Tory councillors and defenders of the shires, who are worried about where it might lead.

Yet, far from treading uneasily, Mr Boles as set about his task with some force. There have been numerous speeches. There have been ear-catching Newsnight appearances. There have been newspaper columns written in praise and, more often, in condemnation. And from it all, we might identify three strands to the minister’s housing policy:
  • Build beautiful. In a particularly readable speech delivered last November, Mr Boles set out why he believes developers should try harder to build pretty, appealing homes. This might sound trivial when set against the problems outlined above, but it’s actually of central importance to what he’s doing. As he sees it, a lot of the opposition to new housing comes about because that housing is so often ugly. This leads to a vicious cycle whereby, “because we don’t build beautifully, people don’t let us build much.  And because we don’t build much, we can’t afford to build beautifully.” Mr Boles cites the Wintles development as an example of house-building being done right.
  • Build wherever. Okay, so not quite ‘wherever’– but Mr Boles certainly wants to free-up new areas for housing. Some of these new areas are green field sites, although these shouldn’t be equated with rolling hills, balling brooks and verdant forests: as Paul has highlighted, some 60 per cent of the “green belt” has been given over to intensive farming. But some of the new areas are also within city and town centres, with new plans to convert offices into homes.
  • Build with consent. When it comes to planning and development, one of this Government’s main themes—and one that Mr Boles has pushed even harder since ascending to his ministership—has been to involve local communities. One policy, put forward earlier this month, is to give local communities control of infrastructure budgets in return for them allowing new homes to be built.

Of course, none of this means that affordable housing will start springing up tomorrow. There are still many impediments and inconsistencies wired into the system, not least that—to return to Policy Exchange’s Alex Morton—the Government’s decentralised approached to planning doesn’t seem to be taking hold as it might. But Mr Boles’s progress has still been remarkable. The moderniser who developed a more robust attitude towards housing policy in his book Which Way’s Up? is now developing it in Government. Those who are currently struggling for a home of their own—the young and the less well-off, in particular—have cause to cheer.

> This is the second in our series of six posts looking at the champions of 'Little Guy Conservatism'. Yesterday, Tim Montgomerie began the series by writing about Laura Sandys MP's pro-consumer conservatism.


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