There are many candidates for the biggest compromise made by this Conservative government. The introduction of a budget-busting annual increase in the state pension at a time of unprecedented austerity is one. My top nomination is that the Tory party, which seeks to create a homeowning democracy, continues to be the stoutest defender of the most destructive of all postwar government regulations: restrictions on housebuilding on the so-called greenbelt.
The UK has largely avoided the ugly urban sprawl that disfigures many American cities — that accomplishment alone is why the greenbelt should only be built on in exceptional circumstances. But we are in an exceptional place. Britain is exceptionally building smaller, less affordable homes that are more distant from workplaces than almost all other large European economies. Cramped living space, high rental costs and the long commutes resulting from excessive building restrictions also explain why Britain has more family breakdown than the rest of Europe.
We could turn this situation around if we were willing to build on a fraction of greenbelt land that, despite its name, is often post-industrial scrubland. The Adam Smith Institute has calculated that 1.4m families could be living in affordable homes if less than 1.5 per cent of the greenbelt had planning permission.
Any housing strategy that is worth having will not duck this reality. Tuesday’s housing white paper from Sajid Javid, the communities and local government secretary, took two large steps towards what is necessary. But he did not take the third and most significant step — on to the greenbelt.
The welcome news is that Mr Javid will force local governments to supply enough land to meet the housing needs of their communities. Under pressure from powerful Nimbies, who often dominate low-turnout local elections, councillors have found ways to underestimate the projected number of new homes required.
There has also been no penalty for councils that have dragged their feet on ensuring land given planning permission is actually built on. The white paper will simultaneously end these practices at the allocation stage and introduce penalties if implementation is delayed.
Building on some of the greenbelt — the only land that can address Britain’s housing demands — is a vital step the Tory leadership is still unwilling to take. The government is determined that when voters look for footprints on their local greenbelt, they will see their councillors’ boots have trampled across it rather than the heels of Britain’s second female prime minister.
The continuing reluctance of the government to enable more social housing is also disappointing. The oligopolistic development industry has insufficient incentive to build genuinely affordable homes. The government is encouraging smaller construction companies but this will take time; and every year that passes risks more bright young people taking their talents to countries with a more affordable lifestyle. A government that spends billions every year on housing benefit should not be squeamish about increasing its intervention.
If the public sector built homes itself, leaning on what we used to call “prefabricated” construction, now known as “modular and quite beautiful homes”, the long-term tax bill will be lower, as prevention is nearly always cheaper than cure. The government is right to focus on the supply of housing and argue that whether people own or rent is secondary to the issue of volume.
In an age when elections are won by politicians talking of security and “taking control”, not deregulation and liberty, the political power of extending home ownership should not be forgotten.
The writer is a political commentator