Taking to the podium for his speech at the virtual Conservative Party conference on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed one of society’s burning issues: “We need to fix our broken housing market… We will help turn generation rent into generation buy.”
This is not the first time in recent years that a Conservative Party leader has tried to get to grips with the housing crisis during a set-piece conference speech. As far back as 2007, then Tory Leader of the Opposition David Cameron painted a similar picture: “All of the Shadow Cabinet here, they can tell the same story of young people who come to our surgeries, they show you their salary, they talk about local house prices and they just say: 'I don't see how I can achieve that dream.’”
In government, the Conservatives have spent a decade striving to help us realise that aspiration, with progress supposedly always being made, but the dream remaining just out of reach – so much so that it has become something of a mainstay of conference speeches. Every passing year that the crisis remains unsolved provides a new opportunity for fresh promises to be made.
The Coalition government came to power in 2010 and enacted a stamp duty cut. The housing problem still remained, however, and in his 2011 conference speech Cameron pledged a “new Tory housing revolution”.
“Unless they get help from their parents, do you know the average age of a first-time buyer in our country today? Thirty-seven,” he said.
The following year, it was déjà vu all over again, with Cameron asking, “You know the average age that someone buys their first home today, without any help for their parents? Thirty-three years old.”
“There are young people who work hard year after year, but are still living at home. They sit in their childhood bedroom, looking out of the window, dreaming of a place of their own,” he said. “I want us to say to them: ‘You are our people, we are on your side, we will help you reach your dreams.’”
By 2013, the housing revolution was still a work in progress. Cameron said: “In a land of opportunity, more people must be able to own a home of their own. You know that old saying, ‘Your home is your castle’? Well, for most young people today, their home is their landlord’s. Generation Y is starting to become Generation Why Do We Bother?”
But he could at least paint a picture of a young couple who had been helped onto the housing ladder by his new Help to Buy policy.
The problem still hadn’t gone away, though, and in 2014 Cameron pledged, “For those wanting to buy a home, yes – we will help you get on that housing ladder… but only if we take on the vested interests, and build more homes – however hard that is.”
Building homes had become a key political issue by this point. In 2015, Cameron returned to the theme of people still living with their parents: “When a generation of hardworking men and women in their twenties and thirties are waking up each morning in their childhood bedrooms – that should be a wakeup call for us. We need a national crusade to get homes built.”
By 2016 it was Theresa May’s turn, and she admitted that while Help to Buy was “the right thing to do”, something wasn’t working. “We simply need to build more homes,” she said.
In her 2017 conference speech – the one marred by a husky voice and collapsing backdrop – May tried to make the housing crisis a career-defining issue: “I will dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem – to restoring hope. To renewing the British Dream for a new generation of people. And that means fixing our broken housing market. For 30 or 40 years, we simply haven’t built enough homes…”
Theresa May, 2018 conference speech: “We will help you get on the housing ladder. And we will build the homes this country needs.”
She went on to announce that the government will lift a cap on councils borrowing to build more houses, which was welcomed by the industry.
Boris Johnson’s first party conference as leader brought pledges to build more homes by turning neglected areas into viable places to live. “… If the streets are safe, and if the transport links are there, and if there are good broadband connections, you enable new housing to go ahead, on brownfield sites that were never considered viable before, we enable young people to get a foot on the housing ladder.”
That year, the National Audit Office found that most of the people who took advantage of Help to Buy would have been able to afford a home anyway, while the Public Accounts Committee reported that the scheme did not make housing more affordable or address the problems in the sector.
The pandemic has revealed a previously hidden social problem: apparently young people don’t live in very good housing. Johnson told the virtual party conference: “When COVID struck, there were millions of people, often young people, who found themselves locked down in rented accommodation, without private space, without a garden, forced to use ironing boards for desks and bedrooms for offices.”
Britain cannot return to the “old normal”, said Johnson. In addition to the recent stamp-duty cut, the government will turn generation rent into generation buy, he pledged, by offering “the chance to take out a long-term fixed rate mortgage of up to 95 percent of the value of the home, vastly reducing the size of the deposit, and giving the chance of home ownership – and all the joy and pride that goes with it – to millions that feel excluded”.
The problem is, the Local Government Association has found that proposed changes to planning regulations would drastically cut the number of affordable homes being built. And the housing gap – the difference between the housing stock and the amount needed for everyone to have a decent home – is already at one million.
James Forrester, managing director of estate agent Barrows & Forrester, told industry website Mortgage Strategy that the Tories’ new policy – which will fuel further demand, without providing any extra supply – is “not only laughable, but quite frankly an insult to those who find themselves priced out of homeownership”.