“If a Tory does not believe that private property is one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom, then he had better become a socialist and have done with it”. Margaret Thatcher (January 1975)
Private property and the extension of home ownership have long been a priority for Conservative governments. As John Redwood MP, Margaret Thatcher’s one-time policy adviser, explained when discussing her Government’s early priorities: “We wanted many more people to have a stake in the country, to own their own piece of land, their own home …”.
Owning that stake is becoming harder and harder for younger generations – and many would argue that falling home ownership is an existential threat for the Conservative Party.
Finding a way forward on the issue of housing delivery is proving to be a challenge, however, and the Tories’ internal tensions have, in recent weeks, spilled over into the public domain.
Yesterday came the news of concessions by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling-Up, Housing & Communities, in the face of a threatened rebellion by about 60 Conservative MPs. These MPs had proposed an amendment to the Levelling-Up & Regeneration Bill that sought the “prohibition of mandatory (housing) targets and abolition of the five-year land supply rule”. In response Mr Gove has signalled that, while housing targets will remain they will act as a starting point with “new flexibilities” introduced to “reflect local circumstances”. Indications are that the Bill will enable councils to take an area’s density and “existing character” into account when applying housing targets.
MPs behind the amendment represent predominantly rural seats, a high proportion of which fall in the south of England. Their move reflects the views of the significant caucus within the Tory Party who feel strongly about defending rural areas from development. They are also under electoral pressure following a string of recent by-election defeats where the Liberal Democrats have overturned large Conservative majorities, following campaigns that play to local concerns about development. Many in the development industry would argue that, without the incentive of targets and five-year land supply, the level of housing delivery will fall rather than rise.
It is also notable that another proposed amendment to the same bill seeks to overturn the effective ban on onshore wind turbines, which has been in place since 2015. It is proposed by Simon Clarke, Secretary of State for Levelling Up under Liz Truss, and is backed by a number of MPs including Truss and Boris Johnson. Clarke has said of the amendment’s supporters that “people across the Conservative Party are getting behind this amendment because it’s pro-growth and pro-green – at a time when we ought to stand for both”.
Two rebellions – one anti-development and the other supporting new development – have brought to the fore the long-term tensions within the Conservative Party between those who want to conserve and proponents of development.
Rishi Sunak has to grapple with the problem that, after 12 years in power, party discipline is much harder to maintain. The tensions between different wings of the Party have been exacerbated by fundamental issues such as Brexit, the COVID lockdowns and, yes, housebuilding – which has also created tensions between Conservative-run councils and the Government. The rise and fall of a succession of short-lived premierships has layered personal tensions on top of policy differences. Add to that the decision by many Tory MPs not to seek re-election (who then feel less bound by No.10) and, despite the Government’s sizeable majority, you have a serious Parliamentary Party management issue.
The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system lends itself towards political parties that are broad coalitions of interests. Each party needs to reconcile the interests from the different parts of its coalition – and in policy development and implementation that means that no one will get everything they want.
The Tories’ new leader needs to reconcile the interests in the debate around the Levelling-Up & Regeneration Bill in order to protect the Party’s near-term coherence and long-term future.
If you do not own a physical stake in your area, the incentive for you to seek to conserve it is diminished – and the Conservative Party needs people to feel they have something to conserve.