Has Jacob Rees-Mogg just come out as a YIMBY?

Jacob Rees-Mogg. Image: Getty.

Many might feel that calling Jacob Rees-Mogg the Marmite of British politics would be unfair to a perfectly innocent spread rich in vitamin B12. Could anyone be more high Tory, except possibly some of David Cameron’s former chums, albeit in a very different sense?

But the champion of Conservative Brexiteers has written a strident call to end the housing crisis and drastically improve the supply of homes, calling for reform of parts the green belt and aiming for a “gradual stabilisation of prices nearer the normal multiple of three times earnings”. The “economic and social costs” of our housing crisis, he writes, are “severe”. 

But, unlike Prime Minister May and her predecessors, Rees-Mogg and his co-author Dr Radomir Tylecote – a name that could always get him a job in a science fiction film if he leaves the Institute for Economic Affairs – actually have some proposals that might make a big difference.

They omit many things. Council housing is not a plank of their platform. Housing associations are nowhere to be seen. But councils will like the call for councils to receive more tax money: “Local governments would also be rewarded by being able to keep the revenue they generate when they allow housebuilding.” Whisper it softly, but councils could then use some of that to build housing themselves.

Councils today too often lose money by allowing more homes to be built. One admitted to me it actively resisted housing for older people because of the social care costs it would have to cover. No wonder we have too few homes in the right places.

The authors also endorse the YIMBY argument: give small local communities more powers to approve building of types they like, as a supplement to the normal system, so local residents can share the benefits. Why don’t we allow residents of a single street to set a design code and approve upward extensions or more drastic replacement of existing semi-detached housing, up to five or six storeys high, so long as surrounding streets are protected? Streets of suburban semis could, when owners wish, become denser streets of attractive mansion blocks or terraces, with a dramatic increase in square footage and value for the average suburban street into the bargain.

As they point out, swathes of our cities consist of two-storey houses built over the last hundred years. Few would mourn if local residents chose to let them be replaced with something better. Homeowners will like the increased value for them from the planning permission, even as individual flats and houses become more affordable through increased supply. That would also give the advantage back to small builders, increasing competition for the large housebuilders who have come to dominate the market.

Rees-Mogg also says ‘selective’ green belt reclassification is ‘necessary’. (Cue outrage from a certain soon-to-be-former prime minister.) Land that has become low-quality should be freed for housing. Releasing green belt land within walking distance of a railway station would be a priority. Just 3.9 per cent of London’s green belt is needed for 1 million homes, they explain. But they endorse the principle of preventing large conurbations from sprawling indefinitely, lest Bath merge into Bristol.

Some ideas are not fully explained. Will their new Right to Buy or “reverse Compulsory Purchase Order” for unused government land be vested in local people, or speculators? Their eulogy to traditional architecture will have small-c conservatives crowing and most architects apoplectic. After “take back control”, Mr Rees-Mogg tells us to “take back pastiche”.

Given that Boris Johnson was the favoured candidate of the ERG, which Rees-Mogg chairs, can we expect Prime Minister Boris to promptly implement these ideas, with a radical boost to the quantity and quality of homes we build? Or will he be a bit distracted by something else? What could possibly be more important?

John Myers is co-founder of YIMBY Alliance and London YIMBY, which campaigns to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.

 
 
 
 

So what was actually in Grant Shapps’ latest transport masterplan?

A tram in Manchester. Image: Getty.

Poor Grant Shapps. This weekend, the UK’s transport secretary unveiled a fairly extensive package of measures intended to make sure Britons can keep moving about during the Covid-19 crisis. On Saturday, he fronted the government’s daily afternoon press briefing; on Sunday, he did the rounds of the morning political shows. 

And were those nasty mean journalists interested in his plans for bicycle repair vouchers, or the doubling of the A66? No they were not: all they wanted to ask about was reports that the Prime Minister’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings had breached the lockdown he himself had helped draw up. The rotten lot.

This is, from some perspectives a shame, because some of the plans aren’t bad. Here’s a quick run down. 

  • The government is releasing a total of £283m to increase frequencies on bus (£254m) and light rail (£29m) networks, enabling more people to travel while maintaining social distancing. 

  • It’s deploying 3,400 people – British Transport Police officers; staff from train operators and Network Rail – to stations, to advise passengers on how to travel safely.

  • It’s promising to amend planning laws to enable councils to reallocate road space and create emergency cycle lanes, using a £225m pot of funding announced earlier this month. 

  • It’s also spending £25m on half a million £50 bike repair vouchers, and £2.5m on adding 1,180 bike parking spaces at 30 railway stations.

All this sounds lovely, but announcements of this sort tend to throw up a few questions, and this is no exception. The UK is home to over 2,500 railway stations, which must raise doubts about whether a few extra bike parking spaces at 30 of them is going to be enough to spark a cycling revolution. And councillors say that £225m for new cycle lanes has been slow to materialise in council bank accounts.

As to the money for public transport: that £29m will be shared between tram networks in five English conurbations (Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, Tyne & Wear, Nottingham, Sheffield). Just under £6m each doesn’t sound like the big bucks.

Then there’s the fact that all of these pots of money are dwarfed by the £1bn the government is planning to spend on turning the A66 Transpennine route across the north of England, from Workington to Middlesbrough, into a dual carriageway. Which puts the money allocated to cycling into perspective.

That said, it is refreshing to see the government taking an interest in cycling at all. Also, Grant Shapps genuinely tried to distract the nation from a huge political scandal by talking about bike repair vouchers, and you’ve got to give him credit for that.

More details of the plan on gov.uk here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.