The Answer to Our Housing Crisis is on the High Street
A core tenet of Conservatism is that of owning your own home. As Margaret Thatcher said in 1975, “if a Tory does not believe that private property is one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom, then he [they] had better become a socialist and have done with it”. Adam Smith was even clearer, three centuries ago: private property is central to economic success for individuals, communities, and nations.
The Conservative Party, and the nation, now accepts that the housing crisis is one of the biggest issues facing modern Britain. Without stable, affordable housing, today’s young people won’t have the financial and social security they need to settle down and have families as their parents and grandparents did.
On the Andrew Marr Show (4/11/2018), James Brokenshire MP discussed turning disused shops into “community hubs”, and “getting people to live in the high streets”. (https://twitter.com/Conservatives/status/1059142515520143362).This is a commendable initiative; indeed, it is strikingly similar to a policy we proposed at Party Conference this year, when the Conservatives asked for young members to contribute policies on making housing more affordable for first-time buyers.
The logic is simple: that of supply and demand. By increasing supply, prices fall, making it easier for predominantly young first-time buyers to enter the market. If we want to restrict building on the Green Belt and protect our countryside, then increases in supply have to come from existing, disused buildings; and there’s a ready supply of disused buildings on our high streets.
So far so simple - but how do we actually get people to live in our high streets? At first glance, the coffee shop on the corner and the hairdressers don’t appear to call out ‘humble modern abode’.
As young people, this was something that attracted our interest. When we presented our proposal to the Conservative Party’s Policy Unit, we set out three rules.
Our first rule was that any new policy that reduced the cost of homes for first time buyers should be revenue neutral. We did not want to push for more taxes or spending, as most politicians like to do. The Conservative Party prides itself on being that of fiscal responsibility and, even as we leave austerity behind, we cannot become lax on spending.
Our second rule was to prioritise the conversion of brownfield sites into housing, to avoid damaging our valuable countryside. The natural beauty of the British countryside is a precious gift that we cannot deny to our grandchildren. We believed that future policy changes should work to turn disused industrial and commercial areas, rather than forests and meadows, into housing.
Our third rule was that the policy should seek to reverse historic disruptions to the free market. Over the years, a steady stream of bureaucratic regulations have made building houses more difficult and ‘land banking’ – developers hording land cleared for development in the belief that it will become more valuable as the housing crisis worsens – more profitable. Rather than introducing further restrictions on the free market, we wanted to design a policy that removed restrictions.
So, within the constraints of these rules, we agreed the best solution was to convert disused commercial properties in our town centers into residential properties.
But what does this look like in practice? Simply put, we should implement a model of finding property owners who leave an urban commercial property unoccupied for more than eight months out of every year. These fines would annually increase if the property is left unoccupied by one base point.
The revenue raised would be placed into a ring-fenced Affordable Housing Fund controlled by the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government. Local councils and private developers would be able to apply for grants from this Fund to convert disused commercial properties into residential housing. Success of conversion is abundant through the capital, for example, Columbia Wharf, a grain silo from 1864 it is now modern and extensive housing in a prime London location.
Moreover, to prevent Councils blocking developers, an often-overlooked conundrum where Councils have earmarked land for other uses, the Government should reduce funding entitlement for councils proven to be preventing developers building affordable housing. Blocking in this way fundamentally goes against the rights of the property owner, something we cannot allow on a Conservative watch.
In addition, if the Government were to extend the Permitted Development Rights System to cover disused Class A1 and A2 Commercial Properties larger than 150 square meters or, in plain English, the kind of shops you would expect to see on your normal British high street, developers could proceed with the kind of projects Mr. Brokenshire hopes to see occur.
Yet, to truly make a space a home, internal renovations are a necessity; not many people want their living room to resemble the salon the space, pre-conversion. Therefore, Permitted Development Rights should also be expanded upon, allowing occupants and developers to internally renovate certain structures. To empower property owners, it is necessary to remove the headache and hassle of the burdensome red tape surrounding arduous planning permission.
The result- speedier builds, and more stylish interiors.
Overall, by fining property owners who leave property unused, providing subsidies or developers looking to build affordable housing and by expanding planning laws; a ‘carrot and stick’ incentive could be created for the conversion of commercial properties into housing.
Angus was a 2018 Conservative Council Candidate; he is a MA Politics and Contemporary History student at King’s College London
Luke Caldecott was a 2018 Conservative Council Candidate; he is a MSc Money, Banking, and Finance student at the University of Birmingham.