What would Tony Pidgley have thought? The late founder of Berkeley Group, I was told at the time by a friend of his, sold a load of shares in 2015 just ahead of that year’s general election – at least partly because he feared then Labour leader Ed Milliband was poised to enter No 10.

Alastair Stewart

Alastair Stewart

Last month, his successor was singing Labour’s praises while excoriating housing secretary Michael Gove and all his works.

Rob Perrins, chief executive of the London-focused high-end housebuilder and urban regenerator, didn’t hold back at the group’s financial results meeting: “I do see [Labour] as much more pro-business and pro-development than the Conservatives.” The Tories, he said, were now focused on placating voters “in the shire counties”.

He’s not the only leader of a major housebuilder who has shown a new-found enthusiasm for Labour. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has been assiduously courting business leaders, tagging along with a bevy of fellow would-be ministers, not least shadow levelling-up secretary Lisa Nandy. Earlier this year, the two met a delegation of chief executives from leading housebuilders. “After I heard what they were saying I thought I might actually vote Labour” was the verdict of one present, who suggested others were equally reassured.

The most obvious delineator between the two parties is the target to build 300,000 homes a year: a commitment always viewed sceptically by much of the industry before being dropped, in the case of the Conservatives; but embraced wholeheartedly by Labour. “We are unashamedly on the side of you the builders, not the blockers,” Nandy told the Housing 2023 conference in Manchester last month.

Apart from Perrins, however, few housebuilders want to go on the record when it comes to politics other than in the most diplomatic terms. David Thomas, chief executive Barratt Developments, told Property Week in May that the abandonment of the government’s longstanding commitment and a similar dilution of the National Planning Policy Framework’s requirement for five-year development plans for local authorities “will inevitably result in less housing in 2023, 2024 and so on – that’s something that has to be solved by government”.

Starmer hutterstock_1574272270 (1) ComposedPix

Source: Shutterstock

Starmer: housebuilders have been talking to the Labour leader  

Another industry source, with well-honed political antennas, is blunter: “The Tories are unable to control their backbenchers. The party has become insular and navel-gazing, with an eye to protecting their base in the ‘blue wall’ and South East after the election.” While the government is “very, very bad for housebuilding”, Labour is prepared to listen. Opposition policies are “not without challenges” but the industry has had conversations not only with Reeves, Nandy and shadow housing minister Matthew Pennycook, but also the main man himself, Sir Keir Starmer. “They’re asking good questions and they’re prepared to challenge some of the preconceptions that characterise their traditional support,” said another source.

A lost cause

The problem isn’t No 10 or even the Treasury, but with Gove’s sprawling Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). “Gove seems to despise the housing industry and wants to damage it,” complained the first source. “He has refused to meet us and has continuously briefed against us – he sees the housebuilders as his latest ‘blob’ to be attacked,” added the second.

Other complaints directed at levelling up from across the industry (and which I broadly concur with) include: seemingly vindictive taxes and charges for recladding imposed on builders post-Grenfell, when culpability is arguably much wider spread across the manufacturing and regulatory landscape; and the frankly ludicrous Competition & Markets Authority study (widely believed to have been foisted on to an unwilling CMA by your’s truly) into the scale and speed of housing delivery.

Moreover, there are widespread concerns about Gove’s increasingly erratic interventions in the planning process. “He’s pulling in housing schemes all over the place” was one of the more conciliatory views offered by Perrins at his results meeting. Intriguing theories as to Gove’s apparent eccentricity have been proffered across the sector.

Even the dwindling number of developers who still fund the Tories (no doubt recalling the distant days when Labour proposed to effectively nationalise their industry) are said to be tearing their receding hair out over DLUHC policy.

It could have all been so different. One sobering thought, amid the burgeoning love-in between once-rival camps, is: what if former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had been given the keys to Downing Street?

Alastair Stewart is an equities analyst and consultant