‘I rang and said can I have a council house, I’ve nowhere to go, an’ the bloke said no you can’t, we need them all for t’Romanians,’ was a remark offered by a fellow patient, known to me as Fat Lad, when I was hospitalised three years ago. ‘I’m telling you, I’m the biggest Ukip supporter there is…’ he went on, illuminating how — unnoticed by the comfortable classes — a shortage of social and affordable housing was helping to fuel the national mood that eventually led to the Leave vote.
Belatedly, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has had a Damascene moment: ‘Tackling the housing shortage is not about political expediency,’ he declares. ‘It is a moral duty.’ He and Philip Hammond have pledged £2 billion to fund accelerated housebuilding on public land, plus a £3 billion Home Builders’ Fund to encourage smaller builders and developers.
This will act as a Keynesian stimulus through the Brexit turbulence the Chancellor warned of in his conference speech — but I doubt it will come close to filling the gap between the 170,000 homes currently built each year and the 250,000 that experts say we need, both to house a growing population and to hold the price of housing down. That will require bolder interventions, including radical relaxation of planning rules, if social unease is to be averted, particularly among the disadvantaged young. Brexit moves markets, shares rise as the pound falls, but ministers should remember that domestic issues such as housing actually drive voter behaviour: trifle with them at your peril.
Meanwhile, in my Yorkshire town of Helmsley the cheapest new-build house on offer is a two-bedroom cottage in a cramped courtyard at £395,000. Fat Lad will never be able to buy it, or anything like it, and by now I’ll bet he’s a Corbyn voter.