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By Graham Norwood

Editor, EAT and LAT

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Blond ambition - Does Boris Johnson have any housing policies?

Britain lives in fundamentalist black-and-white times - all the more surprising when the country's most divisive point of contention sits on flaky statistical ground.

A 51.89 per cent vote on a 72.20 per cent turnout means only 37.46 per cent of the eligible voting population actually plumped for Brexit - and that’s if you give no credence to conspiracy theories about Russian influence, serial overspending by Leave campaigners, or the antics of Cambridge Analytica et al.

But we are where we are and now that most black-and-white of politicians, Boris Johnson, will be our next Prime Minister - at least if he survives the crisis of who did what at his partner's apartment before the police were called...

Assuming Johnson continues with his leadership bid, where precisely does he stand on housing issues?

We know very little, chiefly because Johnson - just like his rivals - has steered clear of specific commitments on housing during the current leadership campaign. This is what we can glean from his statements in the past.

1. He favours ownership over renting

At last year’s Conservative conference, he made a fringe speech expressing a strident commitment to private home ownership: relating his first experience of seeing poor quality rental flats as a reporter on the Wolverhampton Express and Star, he hinted at support for the continuation or even possible extension of Right To Buy.

He spoke of a family living in a damp flat, condensation running down the window with black spores on the wall. “The council wouldn’t do anything,” he told the conference delegates in that black-and-white way, adding: “I thought what a difference it would make to that family if they had been able to take back control – to coin a phrase. To buy that flat.”

With Johnson’s track record you have to at least ponder whether that experience actually took place, or if it did whether it was then accurately related last year: but even if it was made up for the delegates, it is clear Johnson favours ownership over renting, and may return to traditional home ownership territory after recent Tory efforts to court renter votes.

2. He wants lower stamp duty

Johnson touched upon stamp duty last summer in his regular Monday Daily Telegraph column, when he called for reduced or zero stamp duty for first-time buyers (a policy later introduced, with some variation, by the distinctly anti-Johnson Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond).

A year ago, Johnson wrote of the derisory number of homeowners under 40 in this country. “This is meant to be Britain, the great homeowning democracy, but we now have lower rates of owner-occupation, for the under-40s, than France and Germany. That is a disgrace; and you can’t expect young people to be automatically sympathetic to capitalism when they find it so tough to acquire capital themselves,” he wrote.

Explicitly, Johnson called UK stamp duty “absurdly high.”

3. He wants fewer affordable homes on new-build schemes

In the same Telegraph article, Johnson also took a cheap swipe at house builders sitting on what he suggested were large land banks, saying: “They have the land, they plainly have the cash, and it is time they used both to build the homes the country needs.”

In separate contributions, Johnson has hinted that he favours renewed efforts to exhaust brownfield development before encroaching on the Green Belt.

However, he has in the past also taken aim at councils (Conservative and Labour) which insisted on affordable homes on many schemes. “The reason the last Tory mayoralty [of London - Johnson himself] out-built Labour is that we imposed no such constraint – with the result that we got more housing built of all kinds” he claimed.

Even critics suggest he may have built more homes than his Labour predecessor Ken Livingstone (figures from London’s City Hall suggests 94,001 were built during Johnson’s eight-year tenure).

However, as The Guardian recently reminded us, campaigners regularly challenged Johnson over whether his definition of affordable – while Mayor he said this would be up to 80 per cent of the market rent – meant they were affordable to many people at all.

4. He wants ‘beautiful’ garden towns

This pledge seems irresistible for politicians, as it features on Labour and Liberal Democrat wish-lists as well as Tory ones.

But Johnson and rival leadership contender Michael Gove have both endorsed a recommendation by the Policy Exchange think tank to establish a ‘Department for Growth’ with responsibility for delivering 15 ‘beautiful’ new towns on the edge of London.

The same document - again, backed by Johnson - calls for incentives to developers whose designs come nearest to the search for attractive high-quality product set out in the National Planning Policy Framework.

5. His instinct may be non-interventionist on the private rental sector

Johnson has been notably quiet on the vast range of changes to private renting introduced, at a lick, by the Tories in recent years.

It is certainly true that his proposal to raise the 40 per cent tax threshold to those earning at least £80,000 would assist a fair number of private landlords but his justification for this has been to stimulate the economy, not to come to the rescue of buy to let.

It’s worth remembering that when he was London Mayor, Johnson certainly enjoyed his fair share of tinkering with rental schemes which - at the time - were regarded as irritating or irrelevant by property professionals.

There was a long-awaited blue badge kitemark equivalent for landlords and private rental properties promised by Mayor Johnson; that became enshrined in his Mayor’s Housing Covenant and then his London Rental Standard, both of which delivered very little and were at least partly voluntary.

However, in 2012 Johnson did say something which suggests that - if it ever becomes a priority for him as Prime Minister - he might be less interventionist than his Tory predecessors.

“It is clear that top-down regulation, including rent controls, will only serve to deter investors at a time when more, not less, investment is needed,” he said seven years ago. It’s fair to say no Conservative minister has acted on that advice in the intervening period; will Johnson deliver should he reach Number 10?

6. He has ‘housing-friendly’ people in Team Boris

Former housing minister Gavin Barwell - Theresa May’s right hand man in recent years - has indicated he may not serve a Johnson administration in any capacity. Nonetheless ‘Team Boris’ consists of plenty of other experienced housing politicos.

Current housing minister Kit Malthouse worked with Johnson at the London Assembly, and can be expected to hold a strong position in the new government. He is also a keen backer of Johnson in these later stages of the leadership campaign.

Likewise James Brokenshire and Alok Sharma (the latter was housing minister when the Grenfell Tower tragedy took place) are both overtly backing Johnson for the leadership.

Perhaps more useful in terms of housing ‘thinking’ is Grant Shapps, another ex-housing minister who has become increasingly sceptical in recent years about the realism of some housing policies he himself advocated: he is another close supporter of Johnson.

So, if Boris Johnson PM wants to call on past ministerial experience, it’s on hand - although recycling familiar faces in the revolving door of the housing ministry may not please the property industry, which has become mighty disenchanted with recent Tory governments.

So there we have it…

This rag bag of general views on housing, expressed randomly by Johnson over recent years, hardly forms a manifesto; to be fair, Johnson is not alone amongst his Tory leadership rivals in failing to produce a wide-ranging set of policies on housing or anything else.

So, for the future we can only guess at what he might believe or aspire to in terms of the country’s housing market, based on those infrequent vague statements. He is very much a politician of our current time, forthcoming on broad brush sentiment while apparently lacking even the slightest detail, and perhaps lacking any interest in learning that detail too.

If he makes it to PM, and it certainly looks like he will, then how long he lasts will not be down to anything to do with housing anyway: who is to bet against the ultra-Brexiteers calling for his head within a matter of months if he betrays the wishes of the 52 per cent.

Or should that be just 37 per cent? 

*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn

**Graham was recently named Property Commentator of the Year, Property Trade Magazine Journalist of the Year, Property Columnist of the Year and overall Property Journalist of the Year at the Property Press Awards 2019.

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    If your going to write an article at least be impartial - your remoaning 'statistics' at the beginning. The same logic applies to any vote and always has done! A vote is a vote, suck it up and stick to the housing topic or don't bother.

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    Boris will sort....
    Remove SD below half a million reduce Busieness Rates on High St.

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  • Paul Barrett

    The ability to vote is there for all who qualify.
    If they can't be bothered to vote then that is their lookout.
    In Australia they have True democracy.
    Everyone is forced to vote!
    If the same occurred in the UK you would have a radical difference in politics.
    But we are where we are so it matters not that only 37% bothered to vote.
    More than 50% of that vote was for leave.
    Cambridge Analytica didn't influence the vote at all.
    Neither did the millions spent by either side.
    I wanted to leave the EU when idiot Blair flung open the borders to the A8 countries
    I got my chance to reject that policy years later in the referendum.
    No amount of campaign monies or anything else influenced my vote.
    Blair decided my vote years earlier.
    Rubbing the right's nose into diversity was Blair's stated aim.
    Well the British have rejected that.
    Had free movement been stopped I doubt the leave vote would have won.
    But the political elite refused to engage with the views of the common man and have received bloody noses as a consequence.
    I very much doubt whether there will ever be another referendum again as the results aren't usually what the elite want!
    As for RTB an appalling and destructive policy.
    Why should my taxes go to support feckless Council tenants to buy their properties at a massive discount!?
    Social housing is there for a reason.
    If council tenants want to buy then they should receive no advantage over other buyers.
    Let them buy on the open market.
    Let them buy their council home at FULL market value with no assistance whatsoever from Govt or Council.
    I don't want my taxes subsidising feckless council tenants to achieve ownership.
    Govt should reintroduce MIRAS for all properties under £350000 index linked.
    It should allow IO mortgages til 90 at 95%LTV.
    That would go some way to achieving homeownership for all.
    We also need to see mortgages being paid by HB when a person is unemployed.
    With IO only resi mortgages this would be cheaper than bankrupting the unemployed homeowner who would inevitably be made homeless requiring HB etc etc.

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