Many might feel that calling Jacob Rees-Mogg the Marmite of British politics would be unfair to a perfectly innocent spread rich in vitamin B12. Could anyone be more high Tory, except possibly some of David Cameron’s former chums, albeit in a very different sense?
But the champion of Conservative Brexiteers has written a strident call to end the housing crisis and drastically improve the supply of homes, calling for reform of parts the green belt and aiming for a “gradual stabilisation of prices nearer the normal multiple of three times earnings”. The “economic and social costs” of our housing crisis, he writes, are “severe”.
But, unlike Prime Minister May and her predecessors, Rees-Mogg and his co-author Dr Radomir Tylecote – a name that could always get him a job in a science fiction film if he leaves the Institute for Economic Affairs – actually have some proposals that might make a big difference.
They omit many things. Council housing is not a plank of their platform. Housing associations are nowhere to be seen. But councils will like the call for councils to receive more tax money: “Local governments would also be rewarded by being able to keep the revenue they generate when they allow housebuilding.” Whisper it softly, but councils could then use some of that to build housing themselves.
Councils today too often lose money by allowing more homes to be built. One admitted to me it actively resisted housing for older people because of the social care costs it would have to cover. No wonder we have too few homes in the right places.
The authors also endorse the YIMBY argument: give small local communities more powers to approve building of types they like, as a supplement to the normal system, so local residents can share the benefits. Why don’t we allow residents of a single street to set a design code and approve upward extensions or more drastic replacement of existing semi-detached housing, up to five or six storeys high, so long as surrounding streets are protected? Streets of suburban semis could, when owners wish, become denser streets of attractive mansion blocks or terraces, with a dramatic increase in square footage and value for the average suburban street into the bargain.
As they point out, swathes of our cities consist of two-storey houses built over the last hundred years. Few would mourn if local residents chose to let them be replaced with something better. Homeowners will like the increased value for them from the planning permission, even as individual flats and houses become more affordable through increased supply. That would also give the advantage back to small builders, increasing competition for the large housebuilders who have come to dominate the market.
Rees-Mogg also says ‘selective’ green belt reclassification is ‘necessary’. (Cue outrage from a certain soon-to-be-former prime minister.) Land that has become low-quality should be freed for housing. Releasing green belt land within walking distance of a railway station would be a priority. Just 3.9 per cent of London’s green belt is needed for 1 million homes, they explain. But they endorse the principle of preventing large conurbations from sprawling indefinitely, lest Bath merge into Bristol.
Some ideas are not fully explained. Will their new Right to Buy or “reverse Compulsory Purchase Order” for unused government land be vested in local people, or speculators? Their eulogy to traditional architecture will have small-c conservatives crowing and most architects apoplectic. After “take back control”, Mr Rees-Mogg tells us to “take back pastiche”.
Given that Boris Johnson was the favoured candidate of the ERG, which Rees-Mogg chairs, can we expect Prime Minister Boris to promptly implement these ideas, with a radical boost to the quantity and quality of homes we build? Or will he be a bit distracted by something else? What could possibly be more important?