Friday, November 30, 2012


Nick Clegg’s Garden Cities – Thinking Big, But Are There Any Foundations?

Last weekend’s Letter from the Leader was Nick Clegg’s boldest email missive for some time: headed “We need to think big,” it turned his speech on Housing last week into a rallying cry to Liberal Democrats. Starting with new Coalition plans to add an extra 50,000 homes, he outlined a vision of new “Garden Cities” adding up to a million in a decade. Nick’s inspired me not just to examine his new big idea, but to come up with hard-headed tests for any major policy proposal – not least ‘Can we get it done?’ and ‘Will we get any credit?’

The text of this Letter from the Leader is not yet available to read on Nick Clegg’s website (though you can sign up there to receive future ones), nor the Lib Dem website, though Lib Dem Voice have helpfully reprinted it on theirs. You can, however, read his speech to National House-building Council on the Deputy Prime Minister’s official website.

The Housing Crisis

Housing has been an increasing problem in Britain for decades, but there’s no doubt that in the last few years the problems have boomed exactly as new houses haven’t. The population is rising; the number of smaller households is rising at a faster rate than the rest of the population; populations are not rising evenly across the UK, but in particular areas, notably the South East; and so house prices and rents are rising way ahead of general inflation, which both denies access to the housing ladder to many and through housing benefit massively distorts the benefits system (as I wrote earlier this year when proposing pilot studies for one part-solution that might be better than the alternatives – assuming no massive new miracle building programme that would drive down house prices and better manage the overcrowding of the South-East, as Nick’s might in a perfect world).

No government in my lifetime has done anything much about housing, save for the Tories’ 1980s plan of selling off social housing – which increased home ownership at the time, but which without replacement stock has long since come to a natural halt as a policy with broad appeal or effect. For whatever reason – ideological, financial, fear of confrontation – no level of government has made housing a priority for a long time, while for a different variety of reasons the private sector has simply not kept up with demand (and not been popular for “sprawl” where it’s tried bit by bit).

Nick Clegg last week made a speech in which he called for a bold turnaround – not just setting out some of the Coalition’s piecemeal policies to help building get off the ground in areas where it’s teetering on happening, but the sort of massive new, planned building programme I simply skipped over when I last wrote about housing because no-one was going to do it. And yet, when our national deficit is still in crisis and reducing ongoing borrowing, Nick proposes all this – surely a far better solution to soaring benefits rates than simply cutting them and hoping people can still find housing, but, as Sir Humphrey would say, bold. Having read Nick’s speech and seen some of the reaction since, I think it could be marvellous if it happened, but were I a betting man I could make more than a property speculator in wagering it’s not going to.

Nick’s vision is of a Britain (though, in effect, mostly the South-East) blooming with dozens of new garden cities – described by commentators who like the idea as new Letchworths, and by those who don’t as an outbreak of Milton Keynes. It’s a clever pitch; you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between what a “garden city” is and what an “eco-town” is, save that one is couched in language of an older era that sounds traditional and reassuring and for which you can go to poster-towns like Letchworth to show how nice they are, while the other was a despised New Labour eyesore of political correctness and bossy government, so it’s no wonder they didn’t get going. But imagine either actually built and a visit to each, and I can’t imagine they’d look any different. So when the biggest barrier to these new towns other than the immense cost is all the many shades of NIMBYism, it helps that for those suspicious of new ways more than of falling house prices Nick can ‘speak Tory’.

“We Need To Think Big On Housing”

I agree with Nick’s ambition – and sometimes it’s good to take a risk. He does, right from the heading in that email to Lib Dem members that “We need to think big” and the introduction “I want to focus on an issue that wasn’t so high on the radar screen, but matters enormously to me: housing”.
“As a country, we have built too few homes for far too long – and the economic and social consequences are massive. Prices out of reach of too many young families. Our economy vulnerable to boom and bust in the housing market. The housing benefit bill spiralling. Homelessness and overcrowding.
“All these problems are solvable but only if we think big.”
Nick outlines the budgetary and regulatory changes the Coalition’s made to boost housing, and new funding he’s announced to develop nearly 50,000 new homes on top of over 100,000 this year – but he’s clear “it’s nowhere near enough,” with the population growing “by about 270,000 households” (unspecified, but he means per year). Now, I can do the maths, too: the boost he announced this week adds up to slightly less than 5% of the million new homes he’s calling for in the next ten years, and even a million homes in a decade is little more than a third of the number he implies will be needed. Perhaps Nick decided that “a million” was the biggest number he could mention before the fear factor became overwhelming.
“No wonder prices are out of reach for so many families. The average first time buyer is now 35, and home ownership is falling for the first time in a generation.”
“The only way out of this crisis is to build our way out.”
“I want us to go back to some of Britain’s proud heritage of urban development and build a new generation of “garden cities” – places that will grow, thrive and become part of the fabric of the nation.”
Again, Nick marshals a good case here, and it helps, again, that he speaks fluent Tory: he may have sensed a tipping point in ‘Middle England’. It’s no longer just people raising their skirts and drawbridges in horror at the thought of more houses spoiling their view and, worse, lowering their property prices, but that their grown-up children have nowhere to live – and couched in terms of tradition, not scary modernity. And it’s at that point that Nick pivots to anticipating problems:
“Of course development is always controversial. It’s right to protect our precious rural landscape and not let England be concreted over. But the point I’ve been making in government (and there have been some lively debates) is that planning big new settlements is the best way to protect our countryside because the alternative is endless urban sprawl.”
This, I think, is the key passage, which more than undersells one problem – the NIMBYs – and only hints at the other: will the Tories for a moment commit to this? Because the point at which I worry that this grand ambition becomes a house of cards is when it comes to putting the money in. Is this just a message from the Leader of the Liberal Democrats about positioning our aspirations, being on the side of young, growing families (which, to be fair to Nick’s consistency, is pretty much his whole message, whether taking about early education, social mobility or parental leave)? Or is it one from the Deputy Prime Minister that heralds a massive commitment by the LiberaTory Coalition Government? Because I’d expect a bit more of a fanfare if the latter, rather than merely a self-deprecating aside about arguments with the Tories.
“We can’t do this overnight. Scale and ambition take time. But I believe if we put aside partisan politics and think collectively about the housing needs of the next generation, we could set Britain on track for a major wave of new development, new jobs, and new hope.”
So, Nick, does that mean that not just the Tories but the Labour Party – which greeted your words with the mix of shrieking abuse and wanking into the wind with which they greet all your words – would have to be on side before any of this gets done? It seems the bigger the problem, the bigger the vision, the smaller the chance that any of it might ever happen.

This is the point at which I turned to Nick’s full speech to see if it offered anything more concrete (no, not nasty concrete, anything more flowery and trellised). It starts with a decent statement of purpose, on the money, at least:
“I came into this Coalition Government to build a stronger economy in a fairer society, so that everyone can get on in life.
“That has meant immediate action to pay down the deficit and pave the way for growth – of course. But it also means looking further ahead, too: 10, 15, 20 years down the line. And that’s where Britain’s house builders could not matter more.
“Think about where lasting prosperity is going to come from. We need to create an economy that doesn’t rely so heavily on our big banks, where growth is driven by a much more diverse private sector filled with entrepreneurs and small and medium sized firms, spread across the country.
“An economy where people with good ideas have a real chance of starting a business. Where firms seeking to grow can find the staff. Where young men and women can fulfil their potential.
“But, bluntly, no matter what we do, Britain will not finish this journey unless we build enough houses. That’s the absolute basics.
“Our communities will only sustain strong local economies if they can attract and house the employers, high-skilled workers and consumers they need.”
All that is entirely right. But implicit in it is that this is a policy to supply the parts of Britain – the parts of South-East England – that are already expanding. He doesn’t say in so many words that new towns are to follow the money and become handy commuting bases, but that’s the essential message – so the missing figures aren’t to do with not much over 10% of the country being built on now and only needing a couple more per cent with houses sitting on it to solve the problem, but what share of the landscape will need to become town in the areas people want to live to get the jobs. And I suspect those figures will be very much scarier.

Nick goes on to say, too, that:
“now is the moment for politicians of all stripes to get behind a major housing push.
“This will need to span more than one parliament. We need to work together, and we need to be ambitious in our approach.

“Departments aren’t used to thinking beyond the next Spending Review, or beyond the next Parliament – but we need to shift our sights to the horizon.”
Hmm. Good luck with that. On a more practical, deliverable note:
“I want us to make the best offers to the most ambitious proposals. So not just 5,000 new homes, but 15,000, 25,000.
“And what will be crucial in all of this is that while central government provides support, incentives and encouragement, that process will be locally-led.
“I lead a party that is localist to its core. We now have a chance to show that localism can deliver in a big way.
“I want us to prove that, when it comes to major development, we don’t need to revert to central planning, we can embrace a new era of community planning instead.”
That’s the nearest to a specific proposal in the speech, and the first half sounds hopeful – while the second sounds more of a hope than hopeful. I’d love it to be practical, but is it more an attempt to square the circle rhetorically between a localist party and planning running into local opposition than a practical plan to get things done?

I know it seems like I’m knocking the whole idea. But I’m trying to work out what Nick was actually trying to build up: houses, or hopes? Nick is right to come up with big ideas, and to sell them to the Party in the way he did at the weekend. The LiberaTory Coalition needs to inspire Liberal Democrats, let alone inspire voters, with positive prizes, not just restraining Tories. But I worry that this fanfare will only lead to disappointment and greater disillusionment among Party members if action doesn’t follow the call – and I can’t help but notice that this wasn’t a government plan, seemingly, but Nick’s. The government cash was only for 5% of it. Rather than just asking piecemeal, sprawling questions about elements of a speech or email, then, I’d like to propose my own strategic vision of big questions with which to test the big ideas.

Hard-headed Tests For Any Major Policy Proposal

If a speech in which “Nick Clegg calls for…” something is to have a more immediate impact than a Lib Dem motion where “Conference Calls For…”, we need to ask if it’s an aspiration, or if there’s real government drive – and money – behind it. And, for Lib Dems, we should ask something more. On the basis that if an idea’s good enough you should shamelessly nick it – something Lib Dems have long known to our cost – I’d like to focus Lib Dem minds with a message from Conservative Party part-owner Lord Ashcroft:
“Everything the Conservatives do between now and the next election must pass at least one of the following four tests, and it must not fail any of them.
  • “First, does it show we are sticking to the right priorities for the country?
  • “Secondly, does it show strong leadership?
  • “Thirdly, does it show we are on the side of the right people (and, if necessary, make the right enemies?)
  • “Fourthly, does it offer some reassurance about the Conservative Party’s character and motives?”
I don’t think this is a bad set of questions for us to ask, either – though Ashcroft’s questions show a confidence (or arrogance) that the Tories are leading the Government, can deliver, and will then get the credit (or blame) for any decisions. The last two and a half years have shown us that that isn’t really true – but that goes far more for the Liberal Democrats.

In effect, the only question the Lib Dems appear to have been asking in the first couple of years of the Coalition has been Ashcroft’s first – Is it the right thing to do? Which has led to some good government, some good policies, and many good kickings from voters who don’t see anything specific to give us credit for. Important as doing the right thing may be, if we selflessly serve the country while setting ourselves up for annihilation, we won’t be in a position to do the right thing for very long.

I think there are two key questions Liberal Democrats need to ask on top of Ashcroft’s tests.

Our reframing of “does it show strong leadership?” might simply be ‘Can we get it done?’ And at what price – in political capital, and in actual capital? Is it worth spending so much of either? Considering, too, “does it make the right enemies?” I might add that making the right enemies is all very well, but ‘Are we actually going to be able to beat them?’ Never mind local opposition; not only do we have to reach agreement with the Tory Leadership on the Government delivering anything not in the Coalition Agreement (and, increasingly, all over again on anything that is), but it’s obvious that thanks to Cameron’s “strong leadership” he’s increasingly unable to get his MPs to vote for anything he says. That’s the irony – Nick is seen as a weak Leader, but Lib Dem MPs are exceptionally united in voting for agreed proposals; it’s simply that there aren’t enough of them, and it’s the weak Tory Leadership that lets agreed Lib Dem priorities slide and makes us look a weak part of Government (and, conversely, the strong Lib Dem Leadership that often saves Cameron’s votes from his own rabble).

So, then, our first new question should be: ‘Can we get it done?’

Our second new question should be: ‘Will we get any credit?’

The cynical answer is ‘No’. Note that my questions, or something like them, must have been asked within the Party Leadership. The Lib Dems have clearly been thinking about specific, measurable claims that we might get credit for recently, rather than just ‘doing the right thing’ platitudes: the party slogan changing from “In government, on your side” of early in the Coalition to the much less inspiring but demonstrably true “Fairer tax in tough times”. And even then, with the massive rise in the personal allowance for most income-taxpayers the single policy the Lib Dems most banged on about at the last election and since, at the top of the list of four priorities on the cover of our 2010 Manifesto… Opinion polls show that only about 20% of people give us credit for it. So how wildly distinctive and how loudly and perpetually repeated does any policy have to be before anyone thinks of it as Lib Dem?

To aid any possibility of getting credit, then, there’s more to consider. The party has given precious little thought for many years to communicating our philosophy or core values, but to the extent that people have a sense of them or even vaguely ‘What the Lib Dems are about’, does a proposal arise naturally out of that? Would people think ‘That’s the sort of thing the Lib Dems like’? Is it something that we’ve consistently gone on about? If we adopt this policy and get the Coalition to act on it, will ministers be likely to keep going on about it, and will activists be inspired to keep campaigning on it? If the answer to many (or even any) of these questions is ‘No’, then the chances of it making an impact for the Lib Dems – as opposed to for the country – are practically non-existent.

There are two more big problems with my two more big questions. Firstly, the Lib Dems’ overriding focus on ‘Is it the right thing to do?’ both in Opposition and now in Government means that we’ve been much more willing than the other two parties to consider policies for the long term. The more ruthless ‘Can we get it done?’ and ‘Will we get any credit?’ are enemies of long-term thinking. A long-term plan is much more likely to cost money, and be changed or cancelled by changes in government; a long-term plan that succeeds is much less likely to be noticed in its early stages, or only be noticed for its downsides or not yet delivering, while the eventual credit is, again, something more likely to go to changes in government. I’ve always criticised governments for their short-termism; ironically, I’m now setting political tests that might encourage it.

Secondly, ‘Can we get it done?’ and ‘Will we get any credit?’ also clash with each other. Here’s the paradox of wanting both: the more distinctive a proposal, the less likely it is to be delivered through the Coalition; the more popular and consensual, the more likely it is that the Tories will claim the credit (and get it, thanks to all their friends in the media).

As it happens, I’m working on a Liberal Big Idea, too. Hopefully, I’ll be ready to come out with it in the next week or two. It does comes right out of our philosophy, it’s very distinctive, and it’d save a lot of money – so it sounds like it’d be good for all those tests. But in terms of making the right enemies, it’s a doozy – so the chances of it getting through any Coalition consensus aren’t high…

Nick’s New Big Idea: Will It Get Done, and Will He Get the Credit?

Can Nick deliver on this?

Improbably, the most hopeful straw in the wind in the last week has come from another Nick – Planning Minister and Tory MP Nick Boles. He spoke to Newsnight in a major piece on Wednesday night, complete with a smaller write-up on the BBC website. It was worth a look, and in the main he agreed with Nick – in almost as much as he could without ever once mentioning his speech or indeed his name. Bigging up his own constituency, not exactly a new town, I wondered if “It was not, you know, some grand prince’s design for a new town…” was not a swipe at Mr Clegg’s big vision, though his defence of new building against an array of the usual suspects in the studio sounded more in tune, and as the BBC trotted him off to existing garden city Letchworth to sing its praises the voiceover described such places as “The government’s answer”. So perhaps the Tories might move after all. Of course, I didn’t agree with everything Tory Nick said – the lovely Andy Hinton’s Tweets from the night summarise why succinctly:
“Impressive performance from Nick Boles on #newsnight, except for the pointlessly inflammatory insertion of immigration commentary.”

“Little house with a garden in the suburbs not for everyone. I like my large urban centre with good transport and a vibrant cultural life.”
I like cities, too, and from a party that keeps wanting to do away with the very idea of “human rights”, it was entertaining for Nick Boles to suggest a new human right to a garden – presumably making him so subsumed into the mindset of the typical Tory voter that he thinks everyone wants a nice little duckhouse near no loud noises and reacts with instinctual horror at the very idea of big cities (which no doubt has something to do with the fact that it’s decades since they last won seats in any of them). And I winced as he whistled up immigration, equally by Tory instinct. But on the whole, I saw in his attitude something we could (forgive me) build on, and hopefully the Planning Minister wouldn’t have just gone off on his own without at least some support from the Tory Leadership. Even with that sign of hope, though, watch the studio debate as people line up to attack new housing even when they’re really in agreement (hang your head, Wayne Hemingway) because they assume that it won’t be exactly what they want and so must be opposed until perfection is offered on a plate. Oh, and Paxman’s sneering faux-outrage at someone sounding momentarily more of a snob than he is was beneath contempt, but who didn’t expect that?

Will the Lib Dems get any credit if these new cities happen?

Well, the ‘garden’ part, and Nick taking a lead, might help – I may have characterised his reassuring framing of new towns as tradition as his ‘speaking Tory’, but it’s also true that the environment is among the few sorts of issue that polls suggest people associate us with. So if these massive building projects end up being real ‘garden cities’, that might chime. Unfortunately, along the way, they’re… Massive building projects. As I found above, Nick’s speech itself enabled me to put this grand vision into the context of what he, rather than the Lib Dems in general, has been banging on about for years – though it’s a slight worry that I had to do the contextualising myself, rather than the speech (still less the email) joining the dots.

And never mind the theme: what about who else takes it up? Look at the article on Nick Boles: no mention of “garden cities” from him. Listen to what he had to say on Newsnight: no mention of “garden cities” by him there either, though the framing at least implied something like them, and the voiceover that, hopefully, mentioned them as “The government’s answer”. Within just days of this being Nick Clegg’s next big thing, though, the number of times ‘our’ Nick was mentioned by either Tory Nick (predictably) or by the BBC (also predictably) was… Zero.

Remember, too, that “Of course development is always controversial.” If it’s done by private enterprise, people won’t think of it as a government initiative – unless it’s for someone to blame. And if it’s to be built over ten years, then who’ll remember who started it? Is it something that comes obviously from our philosophy, or that we’ve always been banging on about, then? Basically, no. We’ve not had any big ideas on housing until last week – neither has anyone else (not since the Tories came up with the idea of selling it). Look at the “What we stand for” section on the Lib Dem website: as well as an embarrassing lack of any statement of values or philosophy, merely a set of policy headings, there’s not even any heading for ‘Housing’. So will we refashion ourselves as ‘the party of housing?’ That’ll take an awful lot of doing.

I hope Nick – with help from Nick – does manage to get building. But I’d watch carefully for just how hard and how long he pushes for it, and whether any non-Nicks in Government join the clamour… And until then, I’d hesitate before making it a headline promise on your next FOCUS.

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