What does levelling up mean for Michael Gove? After his Manchester conference season, we now know a bit more. It’s about restoring local pride, creating opportunities and raising living standards – especially in places that have been forgotten for too long. It sounds like a good outcome, but the new secretary of state must think about the right housing in the right places to achieve it.
Conducted by Frank Luntz for the Centre for Policy Studies, a recent poll found that 42 per cent of voters believe that they are invested in the UK, while only 27 per cent believe the UK is invested in them. This seems a damning statistic. What do you need, as a citizen, in order to feel as though your country is invested in you?
Home isn’t a single building, but a community. The streets you are in, the faces you recognise. Home matters. But fewer people today have that normal sense of it. Parents are sharing single rooms with their kids, or strangers. They’re in rooms with mould or broken windows that can’t be shut in the winter. How are they meant to feel part of our country? How are they meant to feel invested in?
I returned from the Manchester Conservative conference convinced that the majority of the members of the governing party get this. Over 60% of Conservative MPs want more social homes built.[i] I’ve heard first hand why they want this. The West Bromwich West MP Shaun Bailey grew up in a social home and confirmed he wishes more of his constituents had such security. At one recent meeting, a deputy head complained to him that she spent too much of her free time checking the rental agreements of parents and negotiating emergency accommodation with the council. Because if she didn’t, her kids wouldn’t be able to come to class. Hearing this, Shaun was clear about what needed to be done – saying ‘smash the system’.
What is the ‘system’ we need to smash?
The private rented sector has more than doubled in size over the last 20 years. There are now 11 million people living in it. Average house prices are now eight times the average salary. We are spending more than ever on housing welfare (at double our total police budget), and it’s covering less of the cost of rent. That’s what a broken market looks like. We will only fix it by rebuilding the only tenure of secure, affordable housing for those who Luntz found feel the country has not invested in them. This means rediscovering the potential of social housing.
Right now, social housing competes directly with costly ownership discounts for those just about managing, through things like Help to Buy in the Affordable Homes Programme. Over half of the money in that programme gets spent on projects that households must earn twice the average income to even be able to access. This should raise an eyebrow from the perspective of economic prudence on government spending, but making it directly compete with the hundreds of thousands of children sat in ghastly temporary accommodation makes it a pretty immoral prioritisation. Each year, we lose four times the number of social homes than we are building.
For last decade, government policy has focused on the almost-owning and ignoring the barely surviving. There is nothing wrong with the former thriving, but levelling up this country won’t happen if government ignores the latter. This is damaging our communities and makes it harder for children to get an education – for people to become the person they had the talent but not the opportunity to be.
The majority of Conservatives know it’s time to change
Senior figures like David Davis are call for their party to lead the way on reinvesting in the social housing, from which Davis himself benefitted. Other MPs from across the country, like Jack Lopresti, speak with absolute conviction on the need for social housing. From deep in Red Wall territory, Paul Maynard writes about how levelling up means removing the obstacles to his constituents getting the social housing they need. What was a stream is becoming a surge, and preconceptions about where the Conservatives stand on social housing needs an update.
Michael Gove has the chance to help his colleagues fix their constituents’ prospects. There’ve been some things the government has understood. For example, if done right, the Renters’ Reform Bill will provide protection to millions of renters. This is an excellent step, but private renting is still a necessity for the vast majority – few choose it. What people need, as the honourable member for West Bromwich West said, is for the system to be smashed and sufficient social homes built. It’s only then that the most vulnerable in this country will know they are truly wanted and invested in.
i] According to polling conducted by YouGov for Shelter, 2021