The Guardian view on housing politics: a clash of false

The 2019 Conservative election manifesto was full of grand ambitions for expanding England’s housing stock and improving access to the housing market. Planning regulations would be overhauled. At least a million more homes would be constructed by 2024; the goal was 300,000 a year by the middle of this decade. The homes would be beautiful, safe, environmentally friendly and affordable.

It was largely a fantasy. Today, the housing picture is abject, not sunny. The government’s plans are stalled and the housing market is becoming ever more prohibitive. Much of the reason is economic. Higher interest rates, inflation and the cost of living crisis mean would-be buyers cannot enter the home-buying market. In the rental sector, ever larger number of tenants are in arrears and face eviction as benefits are frozen. Shelter warned this week that a million people are at risk of being forced on to the streets this winter.

But Britain is not building either. This isn’t just a leftwing criticism. It’s also the view of the former Conservative housing secretary Sajid Javid, writing last weekend. Over the past quarter-century, the failure of incomes to keep pace with costs has caused housing need to skew dramatically. Mr Javid points out that average house prices are now nine times average earnings; 25 years ago the multiple was 3.6 times. With mortgages harder to come by, rents are inevitably forced up. Although house prices have recently eased because of higher interest rates, this has become a generational social crisis.

It is a crisis that could be tackled much better. France, with a similar population, is building twice as many homes at present as Britain. This country could do the same as France. But Britain is paralysed by three things: its post-Thatcher reluctance to build adequate social housing, its dependence on a low-wage economy that prevents entry into either the private rental or ownership sectors and, most immediately, by the visceral dislike of significant numbers of Conservatives for effective planning rules.

As a result of the last, the government has found itself the hostage of MPs who want things to stay as they are. Backbench rebels, mainly from southern suburbs and towns, are threatening to amend the levelling-up and regeneration bill. They want to make Whitehall housing targets advisory, not mandatory, for local councils, and to allow councils to ban building on the green belt. They appear to have the power to halt the government’s plans in their tracks.

The levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, is trying to find ways of buying off the revolt. One option he is examining is to restrict the option of turning new-builds into holiday rentals. Others include incentivising building on brownfield sites rather than greenfield ones, penalties on developers who wait for land prices to rise, and stronger rights to appeal against unpopular developments.

None of these approaches offer the real housing solutions to individual and community social needs that the situation requires. Instead, communities are often left with a choice between developers’ interests and nimbyism. What Britain plainly needs is a mix that includes social and affordable housing of good quality and size, with proper community assets like schools, doctors and shops, and where residents are not so dependent on the motor car. But in the Britain of 2022 that more virtuous mix is simply not on offer.