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The Tories are the anti-growth coalition Left-wing activists aren't the ones stymying change

It's behind you! (Photo by Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

It's behind you! (Photo by Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images)


October 11, 2022   5 mins

It would appear that Maria Miller, Conservative MP for Basingstoke, did not get the Prime Minister’s memo. “Still time to sign my ‘Slow It Down’ petition calling on the Borough Council to drastically reduce housing targets,” she tweeted on Friday, a mere two days after Liz Truss launched her crusade against the “anti-growth coalition” in her party conference speech.

“I have three priorities for our economy: growth, growth and growth,” Truss said, pressing her foot on the accelerator. “Our community wants this rapid growth to slow down,” said Miller, stamping on the brake. “We will make it easier to build homes,” Truss said, bearing down on the great furnace bellows of British growth. “The next local plan must cut new house-building levels in half,” Miller countered, pouring cold water on the few weak, fading embers that remain. Truss might as well have slapped on the rouge, minced onto the conference hall stage as a pantomime dame and invited the audience to proclaim “It’s behind you!” to identify members of the anti-growth coalition.

In her speech, Truss listed opposition parties, militant unions, think tanks with vested interests, talking heads, “Brexit deniers” and environmental activists as constituent parts of the anti-growth coalition. If that’s what makes up the anti-growth coalition, all of these interests are certainly very powerful; our economic growth rate has been woeful for the last decade and a half. But one might note these groups — also the stock bogeymen of the Tory faithful — haven’t held the keys to Downing Street for the last 12 years. They certainly play a role, but it’s easy to paint a target on your political enemies. It’s far harder to paint a target on your friends and allies.

The awkward truth left unsaid is that the anti-growth coalition contains more than just members from the “the other side”. Truss failed to mention that some of its most powerful members were in that very conference hall: the Conservative activist base, voter coalition and, yes, even Tory MPs. Miller is just a timely and particularly diametric example, but a quick search will find example, after example, after example, after example, after example, after example of Tory MPs opposing growth — from houses to solar panel installations to new supermarkets — in the face of local opposition from prospective Conservative voters.

They pose in front of derelict industrial wastelands saved from “inappropriate development” with elderly, homeowning activists holding Conservative campaign signs, all grinning like Alsatians. And the Tory councillors are no better. If anything, it’s even easier to find councillor, after councillor, after councillor, after councillor proudly claiming ownership of blocking developments. The so-called talking heads from think tanks that Truss identified often ponder on panels why Britain’s growth rate has been anaemic for so long, all pensively stating “it’s a complex, multifaceted issue” relating to obscure legislative frameworks or some other skills policy minutiae.

But there’s no great mystery. We haven’t grown because we refuse to build infrastructure and housing in our most productive regions and cities, strangling the supply of workers to well-paying, productive jobs, and increasing operational costs. The nation that once produced great Victorian engineers of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s calibre has lost its nerve and taste for economic progress.

It’s easy to assume that big, dark, and powerful forces are behind our economic malaise. It’s far harder to imagine that the cause is perfectly normal, average and decent fellow countrymen and women — motivated by only good intentions — objecting to planning proposals just because they want to stop some construction dust for a few months, or prevent something as nebulous as the “character” of their local area changing. These small-c conservatives represent millions of grains of sand in the national gears of growth — and they’re courted by politicians of all flavours seeking votes at the intersection of our political incentive structures. But courted most successfully, if Truss were to look in the mirror, by the Conservative Party.

One of the great unsolved problems in politics is the natural conflict between wealth, political power and economic dynamism. Wealth building is a fundamentally good thing for society, for it provides security, stability and facilitates increases in living standards. But with growth in wealth inevitably comes political power, which is then invariably used to moat and defend the ownership of wealth, even if that means strangling off economic growth through barriers to entry, oligopolistic profits and economic rents.

These will all be quietly introduced under the well-meaning guise of protecting consumers and the environment, or ensuring product quality (protecting the “unique character of the local area”). In the housebuilding sector, only large players with an army of planning system navigators and the capital to weather cost of operation can survive. A 2016 House of Lords report concluded that the sector “has all the characteristics of an oligopoly”, because of the barriers to entry erected by the wealth and power structures of middle Britain. “It is rational for private enterprise to optimise profits rather than volume, limiting their uncertainty in a market characterised by constant Government intervention and cyclical risk,” the report added. There’s your anti-growth coalition right there, Prime Minister.

It’s not that Truss has no allies. Save for the party leader’s speech, the main stage is never where the best ideas are found at party conferences. Scrubbed of interesting content and commentary that might accidentally “commit news”, cabinet minister speeches are best avoided. The few conference events that did have a “buzz” were all on the subject of planning reform — for everything from housing to new reservoirs. Veterans of many failed campaigns, the movement for change is becoming much wiser and more targeted. It doesn’t matter how big your porcelain hammer is when you hit it against the concrete wall of reform, the thinkers now realise — the hammer will always shatter.

Key to reform — and the defeat of the real anti-growth coalition — is a complete rewiring of incentive structures. A crusade against the largest, most influential voter block in the country will never win. So instead of playing tug-of-war with them, tug the rope sideways. Buy them into reform with beautifully designed buildings, and include their often legitimate concerns from day one in consultations. And — just as Nye Bevan joked was necessary when pushing through the creation of the NHS against stiff opposition from doctors — stuff their mouths with gold.

Let them enrich themselves by voting for densification with policies such as Street Votes, giving them the value of planning uplift to their own properties. Simplify the structure of Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy — initiatives that try to get funding for schools, hospitals, roads and local amenities from new developments, but that fail through their complexity and lack of scale and ambition. Make people believe that by backing a development, they will benefit personally. And for heaven’s sake, follow through with that promise. Yes, it’s offensive to offer these privileged, wealthy people even more carrots — but it will be worth it for the transformative benefits of structural reform.

Finally, realise that some incentive structures are already there for you to exploit. The Secretary of State could get building started in Labour-dominated cities tomorrow. There would be no primary or secondary legislation requirements. All the powers to do this exist today. If the Conservative Party is worried about losing the city suburbs — and it should be — one way to slow the tide of Labour-inclined, priced-out city-dwelling families into the suburbs is to enable them to live in Labour-held, city constituencies by building more.

Going up against the anti-growth coalition will be “difficult, but it is necessary”, Truss said. “We cannot give in to the voices of decline. We cannot give in to those who say Britain can’t grow faster. We cannot give in to those who say we can’t do better.” The only problem is, she was saying it to everyone else, not her own party.


James Sean Dickson is an analyst and journalist who Substacks at Himbonomics.

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Harry Smithson
Harry Smithson
1 year ago

Local character is not nebulous, growth is nebulous. Local woodland is infinitely more valuable than a dispensary that lets us grow man-tits through frenzied palm-oil consumption. But because natural spaces aren’t monetisable products, economists find them incomprehensible. Growth is mandatory because of a system of debt-servitude, in which we keep having to expand and make money to finance an increasingly small number of peoples’ empty lifestyles, who can afford to buy their own private islands, who care about ‘local character’ insofar as it affects the atmosphere of their holiday resorts. Build houses over the golf courses and tell the oligarchs to play a sport that involves exercise. Everyone wins.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago
Reply to  Harry Smithson

NIMBYism

For a healthy society you need healthy families. This is adided by parks and green – but not so much of it that the people cannot afford housing to have families! And this is the current policy. It is part of the grand scheme to destroy the family – which is ALL to having a healthy society. Scenic bits of protected open land like Greenbelt are good and all – but not worth the destruction of the young being able to afford their home to have children and be the very backbone of society in every way.

Old, impoverished (not enough young people to pay their pensions and benefits because they could not afford a family), single, childless people looking over protected cow pasture is not better than the pasture gone and healthy families living in their own place with a bit of their own grass for the kids to play on.

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Harry Smithson

Ah, the fashionable anti-growth nostrums of a few wealthy Western economists! Economic growth is the reason British citizens don’t have the same income as today’s Afghans – which they did only 100 years ago. Or indeed why China has taken more a billion people out of poverty. It is so easy to be disdainful of this when you are well off – and let’s be clear – everyone in the UK is well off compared to the abject poverty of the poorest people in the world.

Even here, the numbers and proportion of the poorest has been declined worldwide in recent decades – because of that terrible thing, economic growth.

We take for granted the benefits of economic growth, but we should perhaps not – it can be reversed and some of the extreme environmental movement’s policies would do precisely this, as of course they intend. The vast majority of opposition to development has nothing to do with protecting woodlands.

J Boyd
J Boyd
1 year ago

Whilst it’s incredibly trendy to produce articles like this that moan about ‘NIMBYs’ there is no serious analysis of whether the ‘failure to build enough houses’ is the real reason of our ‘economic malaise’ or our housing problem.
The UK built an average of more than 200,000 new houses per year during the first two decades of this century. LSE research suggests supply has actually outstripped demand.
The housing problem is that buy-to-let has become the best way of investing, so that the percentage of new homes that are rented rather than owner-occupied has grown from 16% to 30%. So blame the ‘HUTHOs’ (Homes Under The Hammer Opportunists’), and also those who have bought second homes for the lack of affordable housing.
And as for economic growth: we need to create decent jobs, especially in the de-industrialised regions where housing is cheap if we really want an economy that is sustainable and benefits all. Building houses is the economic equivalent of an energy drink: it produces a short term sugar rush but no long term nutritional benefit.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  J Boyd

Increases in productivity and innovation lead to the kind of growth required, which in turn means better investment and saving opportunities than just property, which has been the only safe haven in two decades of low interest rates. (not for me, I hasten to add – the only house I own is my home, there is an over-supply where I live and prices in my street have gone down)

J Boyd
J Boyd
1 year ago

Absolutely. The problem is that building houses doesn’t in itself produce increases in productivity and innovation.
We need to get more investment into manufacturing, especially hi-tech; this has also become glaringly obvious because of the supply chain problems that emerged during the pandemic.
And we also need to create the right kind of growth: it has to be more equitable and sustainable. It’s quite possible for per capita GDP to increase steadily whilst swathes of the population experience poverty and economic insecurity. In fact that’s pretty much what happened from the early ’90s until 2008.

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  J Boyd

House prices AND rents are sky high, not only in London (excepting perhaps areas of very poor economic performance, where there are few prospects). This is as clear an indication as you could get of demand outstripping supply. Renting isn’t intrinsically bad, though perhaps too much of the sector being in short term private individual hands doesn’t provide enough security, for say a young family.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

No especially when they keep wanting to increase the rent. Basingstoke has vast council estates so everyone who cnnot afford private do get housed. Even the people on the street have been cleared out and given places to live. When the houses are built they are quickly filled. I wonder if they come from somewhere else.

odd taff
odd taff
1 year ago

Taking a single word as a political slogan is silly. Tony Blair had Education ( repeatedly three times ) Liz Truss apparently believes in “Growth”. Presumably she means an increase in GDP. This wouldn’t necessarily lead to an improvement in the living standards of most people if the mechanism for increasing GDP was importing more people or selling piles of crumbling bricks to each other for larger amounts of money. We need a better measure of economic improvement. There is a old business saying “turnover is vanity profit is sanity”.

Andy Moore
Andy Moore
1 year ago
Reply to  odd taff

It’s growth in GDP per capita that should be measured. The left always take credit for the growth under the last Labour government, yet when you look at GDP per capita growth, those figures are not so good.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy Moore

Blairs increase in GDP was largely based on immigration, Thatchers increase was due to women entering the workforce in large numbers for the first time. Neither of them improved the living standards of the working classes

Andy Moore
Andy Moore
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The increase in women at work didn’t increase until the last 3 years of the Thatcher government.The first years of her term in office saw a decrease.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

So true! And the third horseman generating GDP has of course been the monster property bubble. This did enrich a propertocracy – millions of Londoners and SE Englanders saw 300k bricks turn into million pounds gold over a decade. No cries for any taxation of these huge gains we note. Remainiacs are Gollums – it was fear that Brexit or any assault on the status quo would steal the precious Ring that lay at very core of their derangment. It was naked self interest! The scelorotic bloated vested interests that have grown during the 20 year Zero Interest era are plainly way more powerful than the ruling Executive. Theor challenge to the staus quo was anuffed out on day q! See how Kwazi is today scrambling to try and stop mortgage rises!! The Property God rules the roost. And it is Net Zero and eco madness that has similarly supplanted the very idea of growth through private enterprise. Read up on degrowth. The problems are systemic and way bigger and deeper than this good article suggests.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I think the phrase working classes is outdated. Most people working do reasonably. It’s those who won’t work that are looked on as working class even though they don’t work.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Andy Moore

Do you mean the last Tory government?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  odd taff

GDP is a useless measure since it includes government spending.
Productivity and innovation, gross value added per person etc are what leads to a more prosperous society, which is what is needed for better welfare provision, a point that leftists never seem to absorb.

Peter Lucey
Peter Lucey
1 year ago

NODAM is an apter acronym than NIMBY. (No Development After Mine)

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Lucey

Or the Green’s BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone [except wind turbines, obv])
Can you imagine the Acropolis, Mont St Michel or even the Sydney Opera House getting planning permission these days?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

She certainly has to tackle the NIMBYs of all political stripes.
But it’s gonna take a lot of backroom negotiating.

Chris Douglass
Chris Douglass
1 year ago

Reading the heading and sub-heading I almost skipped thinking this was one of the occasional leftie clickbait articles on this website but this is the absolute truth.

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

There is no guarantee that Labour will do any different. The Lib Dems definitely won’t. Most MPs are small time property speculators as they usually own two homes, one in London and one in their constituency. How many of them are going to vote to make themselves poorer or even bankrup?

Douglas H
Douglas H
1 year ago

Thanks. Good article, compelling argument

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
1 year ago

I see no evidence that changes in government policy have much influence on GDP, growth or productivity: they are determined by the rest of us – as businesses and consumers. Nor do I see the need to prioritise ‘growth’. We are, by global and historical standards, a more than comfortably prosperous society (though the riches are not always put to the best use). And if growth gives us a few extra pounds per year per head, so what?

In contrast, there are economic variables that can have a serious impact on peoples lives, and where government policy can really make a difference: inflation and interest rates are the current issues, but there’s also government debt, poverty, inequality, the quality of public services and care for the environment.

‘Growth’ is a chimera. There are real issues that can and should e addressed.

Daniel Lee
DL
Daniel Lee
1 year ago

Two different kinds of growth. For Tories it’s a broad economic term. The author conflates that with a very local campaign against more government-built housing. Why the deception?

j watson
j watson
1 year ago

Of course they are the Anti-growth party. They left the biggest Single Market in the world generating a 5.2% fall in GDP and a 13% fall in investment.
And if your economy is smaller you either have to cut services (having promised no more austerity) or tax people more (having promised tax cuts). Doh!! So there you go – 3 massive contradictions by the party and it’s more to the right supporters who’ve been talking codswallop for years with the help of their right-wing media chums.
There was one opportunity to balance Brexit with Growth and it involved a soft Brexit. The stupidity in not grasping that at the time, also recognising that there was no mandate for hard Brexit, esp in NI and Scotland, beggared belief then and one hopes is smacking these clowns roundly in the face now.

Last edited 1 year ago by j watson
Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

Check out Gammon’s latest video on the BofE and the QE tar-Pit UK is mired in

”Bank Of England Hints At Another Repo Market Collapse”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4dTD_x-_mo

So this Friday is the day of Fate for Truss – this is when we see if her act in haste, repent in leisure, is to be the biggie, and all the dam of recession burst…

Friday is the last day of her QE…. haha – or is it? She set a train in motion two Fridays ago – and as it is coming down the mountain the brakeman has an impossible job ahead…

And here is his one last week – and you should know, Gammon does not worry of UK – but just that Truss drove it from QT to QE in a week was so astounding he had to cover it….Like he said – everyone wondered who would crack first – which Central Bank would return to QE from QT – and it was BofE…

”UK Is On The Brink Of Collapse!! What Happens Next?”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frze_8iei0A

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
1 year ago

The mantra of growth growth growth is a rhetorical tool to highlight that the private sector is the wealth producer and the public sector is the wealth consumer.

The anti-growth coalition is largely the public sector and the third sector that either want UK government handouts or EU handouts. The latter without UK democratic accountability.

Walter Marvell
WM
Walter Marvell
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Gwynne

The greatest crime of Truss brief and doomed reign will be the way she allowed the Blob, the remainiacs, the Left and its attack dog BBC to successfully make the word ‘growth’ and the idea of enterprise a dirty word. Growth and enterprise are..or were..our only hope of escape from the Money Tree Zero Zombie Socialist state we have become. But their folly in timing and communication left an open goal for the hysterical defenders of this sickly Orthodoxy. At least we know that it is doomed too. And the doom loop will take the wretched Labour down with it in 2024 or before.

John Ramsden
JR
John Ramsden
1 year ago

The UK _is_ building new houses, at least 200,000 a year I believe. But illegal immigration is increasing the population faster than the new houses can keep up! So building at a faster rate will simply allow the Government to let in even more immigrants, which they seem to have an unfathomable insatiable urge to encourage, whatever they pretend otherwise.

In any case, house building is traditionally the “poor man’s” approach to growth, adopted by former thirld world countries as their first step to increasing prosperity. So it is shameful and pitiful that a supposedly advanced country like the UK is reduced to relying on this for that purpose!

Dominic A
DA
Dominic A
1 year ago

Is it not the case that we don’t have actually a lack of accommodation – rather, housing and house price inflation is a major element of our zombie economy? I believe, like De Beers, property are developers are asset hoarding (most PPs remain unbuilt, unused) to keep prices high by restricting supply.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

When Liz Truss talked about growth I don’t think she was talking about building houses. With regard to Basingstoke where I live building has gone on here like there is no tomorrow. I have seen woods and fields dug up all around. The council benefits by receiving a lot of money from builders. The largest field in Basingstoke and Hampshire is set to be another big housing estate. As for job creation companies will move to where the people are and are doing so in Basingstoke but the economy itself is not growing. Our hotels are full of assylum seekers, some genuine some not. That must restrict business as people will find it harder to find a hotel anywhere for business stopovers. Yes the people have had enough building going on here. It will still go on but they have registered their concerns at the pace of it. I was encouraged that Liz wanted economic growth after nearly three years of growth being shut down by the tories because of Covid. It is a shame that Truss resigned and couldn’t stand up to her critics. Now we have WEF member Sunak who seems to want to destroy the country in all sorts of ways by crippling taxes etc. not to mention the global warming deception leading to food and fuel crisis. It has been described as anti human environmentalism which is what it is in reality.

Last edited 1 year ago by Tony Conrad