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Adrian Owens: Time for bold policies to really help 'hard-working families'

Owens_adrianCllr Adrian Owens is a businessman and the Portfolio Holder for Finance and E-Government on West Lancashire District Council.

It’s rare to find a political speech these days that doesn’t refer to “hard-working families”, but does the policy menu offered provide a recipe for success?

18 months ago, a survey reported over half of working women felt like quitting work completely because of the pressure between work and home life.  A similar survey revealed that only 4% of mothers with very young children want to work full-time, while government figures reveal that more than 15% of such mothers actually have to work full-time. 

A similar discrepancy applies when comparing those who want to be full-time mothers to their young children and those who are actually able to fulfil this aspiration.  Before being accused of sexism, I should add that fathers too are increasingly working longer hours than they would wish in our long hours work culture. 

Why this difference between what people want from their lives and the daily reality?  The answer, of course, lies in the reason that most of us work – money. 

The fashionable term for this area of debate is work-life balance and in this area as in so many others, Labour have been quicker at recognising the problem than we Conservatives. 
The Government is extending maternity and paternity leave and subsidising “wraparound” childcare.  Rather than leaving it to individuals to decide how to make the difficult choice between the conflicting spheres of home and work, employers are being made to pay through the nose to sustain the fiction that no such choice need be made at all.  Meanwhile taxes rise to provide the subsidised “wraparound” childcare.  As taxes rise, parents have to work yet harder and longer to make ends meet, and so entrust their children to childcare providers for yet longer hours, and so the merry-go-round continues.

Here is a modern issue that demands a Conservative response.  Millions of working men and women with young families are looking for real solutions beyond the trite slogans thrown in the direction of Britain’s “hard-working families”. 

Of course no one can decide for families what their priorities should be. These are personal decisions.  So what role can a future Conservative Government play?

Firstly, it must eschew the social engineering mentality of New Labour.  The Government’s policies have been heavily influenced by Patricia Hewitt, whose Women and Equality unit famously said in 2003 that there was ‘a real problem’ with mothers who stayed at home to bring up their children.  Indeed the Government continues to have targets to get still more people into work.  It is ironic that we Conservatives have a reputation for telling people how to lead their lives when in fact it is Ms Hewitt and others of her ilk who hold sway.

Policies to increase productivity (stagnating under Gordon Brown) and reduce the tax burden will also help, but if we are to give people real choice over how they arrange their work and family care responsibilities we must tackle one major area – the high cost of housing in our country.

High house prices are the largest single reason preventing couples from exercising their choice to reduce working hours, or even for one partner, usually the mother, to give up work completely.  House price to income ratios are close to all-time highs – but what is different in the current context compared to the house price booms of the past is that household incomes are now based on two salaries when calculating this ratio.  Put simply, house prices are so high that in most households both partners need to work.

Where both partners make this as a free choice then that is their business.  However when, as seems clear from housing cost figures, both partners are forced to work, those in government should be concerned.  Given the social problems manifest in modern Britain relating to some young people, and given the clear evidence that increased parental commitment to child-rearing has a positive impact on these problems, then as Conservatives we need to reflect on whether some of our other cherished beliefs need to be reconsidered.

If we can increase the supply of new housing and reduce house prices in real terms we will enable more of those oft-quoted “hard-working” families to work a little less hard servicing their housing debt and spend a little more time raising their children and building the social capital of our nation.  Of course, lower house prices help those at the bottom of the housing ladder too. 

Any change would need to be gradual to avoid a severe house price slump, but it’s time to look again at relaxing our restrictive planning laws.  We should scrap Section 106 agreements in favour of direct compensation for those suffering reduction in property value; auction development rights; sell off the vast amount of surplus Government land and recognize that with only 8% of our land mass covered by built development there is plenty of scope to increase house building.

Time comes full circle.  In 1951 the Conservatives returned to power committed to tackling the nation’s housing shortage.  As housing minister, Harold Macmillan succeeded in building 300,000 new homes a year and laid the foundations for 13 years of Conservative government.  Today, the need is no less pressing, though the policy measures required might be different. 


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