How do you go about trying to reset your leadership of the country after a third of your own party have decided you are unfit for office? How do you claw back your premiership from the point at which your own MPs are briefing that you’re ‘toast’, a ‘dead man walking?’ Boris Johnson has considered all available options and decided that, other than either calling a general election or declaring war over a small South American archipelago, the surest solution is to channel all focus into devising a fresh array of housing policies. The thinking must be that by channelling his efforts into getting more Britons onto the housing ladder, the PM might deflect from speculation that he will soon be changing address himself.
The ‘benefits to bricks’ policy, unveiled by Johnson in a speech in Blackpool yesterday, is straightforward in concept: allow people to use their housing benefit to buy their own homes, rather than pay the equivalent amount to a landlord over the course of several decades. For good measure, Boris has also pledged to extend the ‘right-to-buy’ scheme to encompass housing association stock. This approach is not new: far from coming up with an innovative solution to Britain’s housing crisis, Number 10 have simply rehashed Margaret Thatcher’s flagship housing policy, and repurposed David Cameron’s 2015 manifesto pledge to get families on the housing ladder in exactly the same way. The policy was hugely controversial back then, with neither George Osborne’s Treasury nor the housing companies willing to stump up the cash required to offer new right-to-buy tenants a discount. It was quietly dropped by Theresa May in 2016.
This has not deterred today’s Conservatives from dredging up the policy and presenting it to the British public once again. And as many commentators have pointed out, the scheme has considerably less flesh on the bone than it did last time around: as with almost all of Boris Johnson’s policies, the lack of detail in any official documents or yesterday’s speech suggest the plan is still very much at the drawing board stage. Most obviously, a discount on house prices, even a generous one, is little help to the majority of families on Universal Credit. A family renting a council flat in London may find themselves eligible for a discount of around £100,000 after three years, but the price of a flat in London can exceed that by five or six times. Until the root causes of Britain’s housing crisis are addressed, gimmicky sticking-plaster policies like this will be met with apathy from voters. Forget aspirations of house ownership – the Government would have better served working class families by inventing a scheme to help them buy a tank of petrol.
Labour have been quick to point out the holes in the Government’s new housing policy. Lisa Nandy pointed out on Twitter that you cannot get Universal Credit if you have more than £16k in savings, meaning that finding the remainder of a deposit is practically impossible, no matter how generous the discount. Nandy also stated that as there is no suggestion that lenders are on board, the scheme is ‘completely unworkable’ in practice. Supporters of the Prime Minister would reasonably point out that the Labour Party is hardly flushed with cutting-edge policies of their own at present, and all the same criticisms around lack of detail and failure to address fundamental issues could equally be levelled at Labour’s own housing policy. Yet Monday’s bruising vote of no confidence means that the ball was firmly in Johnson’s court this week: his leadership was in urgent need of a reset, and a substantive, coherent new policy could have been the first step. As Labour have been quick to point out, this wasn’t that.
Boris’s plea to his MPs on Monday was straightforward: he gets the big calls right, and there is work still to be done. His plan to level up Britain is still in its early stages, and he must be allowed to get on with the job if the nation is to fulfil its potential. Well, here is that bold new levelling up agenda in action: a 1p tax cut which is yet to materialise, a high speed rail line which shrinks in the north just as rapidly as it is built in the south, and a housing policy which generously gives families the permission to buy homes they cannot afford. As Boris himself has correctly pointed out while Mayor of London, expanding the right-to-buy is senseless if we don’t build more council homes. A truly bold new housing policy would reflect that shortcoming and pledge to swiftly deliver more affordable homes, particularly in the capital, with a firm date set for spades in the ground. Instead, Johnson has churned out a lightweight solution which he himself knows is superficial; a red meat policy to appease Tory backbenchers, his sights aimed no higher than digging himself out of a hole.