This week was not the Conservative Party’s finest.
The party’s conference in Manchester could have done without open division between the prime minister and her foreign secretary. Given nobody, and I mean nobody, in any party really wants yet another election, the party’s job was surely to stick together and look united, whatever the arguments around Brexit going on in Cabinet.
There is a widening gulf between those who, like Boris Johnson, want us out of the EU in 2019 with or without a deal, while others such as Philip Hammond appear to be contemplating a transition that might last for several more years. But what the party needed was a strong show of unity. Sadly, that was missing.
Brexit was not the only item on the agenda. Housing was a hot topic, with a number of statements from ministers and others about the importance of social housing and how vital it is that we speed up the pace of housebuilding.
Worryingly, the government is apparently pumping another £10bn into Help to Buy. I realise not all my developer friends will thank me for saying this - they’ve become Help to Buy junkies looking for their next fix - but rule 1.01 of economics is that if you increase demand without increasing supply, prices rise.
Help2buy increases demand while supply is static. Prices rise and developers gain. If true this is a monumental mistake. Help2buy shld go. https://t.co/ldG4kRBQKE
— Steve Norris (@StevenJNorris) September 29, 2017
It’s easy to appreciate why Cameron and Osborne dreamed up the idea. They believed (rightly) that most people wanted to own their own home and this seemed a good way of getting more young people on the ownership ladder.
But it has driven up prices rather than made housing more affordable for those who don’t qualify for the grant. So a few benefit but the majority suffer. The scheme was due to end in 2021 and it should have been allowed to wither on the vine.
It isn’t just the Tories who have damaged the prospects of people just looking for a decent place to live. Build-to-rent has been pushed hard by government over the past couple of years - and rightly so given the average age of a first-time buyer in the UK is 38.
Quality bespoke rental surely has a role but Labour’s enthusiasm for rent control has caused many foreign investors who understand the product to feel nervous that their investment may not be able to produce viable returns. Careless talk by Labour may well cost dear for the very people they say they care about.
Every fringe meeting on housing talked about the need to increase housing supply. Harold Macmillan’s 300,000 homes a year was often quoted but I heard nothing to suggest how that could be replicated now, although the extra £2bn for social housing, equating to 5,000 homes a year, is better than nothing.
Whatever you think of your elected representatives, we get the government we deserve
At one event on the fringes, Westminster council leader Nickie Aiken expanded on one way to increase council tax revenue. She has proposed a new Band H for properties valued at over £10m, double the current band. For 2017, that stands at £1,376.28 so she’s asking for a massive £2,752.56 - hardly a burden when you’ve paid north of £10m for your home.
It will be fascinating to see how much the initiative raises; values are currently all over the shop. It’s regressive for people in lower bands and ludicrously generous to those at the top end, so something clearly has to be done.
It is another test for a government facing more challenges than any I can recall in more than 40 years in politics. Whatever you think of your elected representatives, we get the government we deserve. As Plato observed: “One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”