Mind the Gap between the Ears – Ferdinand Mount’s Influence on Tory Planning Policy
I’ve covered some of the influences on conservative thinking on planning over the last couple of months – whether the Simon Jenkins little platoons view of localism, or the influence of some quite extreme right wing american groups with a voraciously anti planning and anti-environmental agenda, as well as there influence within number 10 itself.
One key player and text I have omitted previously is Ferdinand Mount. He was the former head of the number 10 policy unit and writer of the 1983 election manifesto. According to Conservative Home his 2004 book ‘Mind the Gap’ was considerably influential in the formation of conservative policy.
The basic thrust of the book is simple, the greatest failure of Thatcherism was the widening gap between the haves and the have nots.
The book clearly shows the influence of the great anarchist sociologist Richard Sennett in his book ‘Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality‘, though seem rather off conclusions were taken from it. Sennett had argued how the powerless in a non-egalitarian yet meritocratic society, could win back a modicum of self-respect. His book stressed self-sufficiency, not being a burden to others, and, most importantly, mutuality, helping others and contributing to society, without which the self-sufficient person would inspire only limited respect. It is a key text in the literature of what I have termed ‘actually existing anarchism’ those writings about existing power relations and how to manage them, rather than an overt desire to abolish the state through force. Mount though has a very nostalgic view of this.
Like the Red Tories & Blue Labour Mount is highly nostalgic for working class institutions, rituals, and group loyalties. He seeks to overcome the segregation of rich and poor in housing ghettos by creating a property owning democracy, but one where the poor would have access to the countryside.
As Victor Bogdanor commented in his review of the book
Mount’s remedies have something in common with the feudal socialism preached by Disraeli in his “Young England” phase, and excoriated by Marx in the Communist Manifesto as “half lamentation, half lampoon, half echo of the past, half menace of the future”
Or Poly Toynbee
Now three-quarters of the population own their own homes, the whole culture revolves around that self-defining possession of a plot of land and four walls. Those without are more dispossessed than ever. It is time to make ownership possible for all….
The shortage of affordable housing, especially in the south, is due to the astronomic price of land. Forty per cent of the cost of a new house in the south-east is the price of the land. The value of land is due directly to strict planning laws. Fewer houses are being built now than for decades, while agricultural land – no longer of dig-for-Britain economic use – is senselessly protected by middle-class lobbies. But it’s time to let land go, send the price of housing tumbling and make everyone a property owner.
Mount accepts that setting people free to build will mean more eyesores and landscape blots, as people are allowed to build in ramshackle ways. But if it would transform the lives of all the dispossessed, giving them a real stake, responsibility and a share in wealth, isn’t it worth it? The Campaign to Protect Rural England would say no – but here’s a conservative willing to argue against a landscape frozen in time by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.
Mount is right to argue that ownership outright is a cause of class divides. Ironically now, as David ‘two brains’ Willets has rightly realised it means a net transfer of income from debtors to creditors between generations – or of older people who rode the property owning baby boom exploiting younger people trying to get on the housing ladder now – unless they transfer some of that wealth. (19th century radicals I think would have been shocked by the thought of a generational source of landowning class divide – of children having a net transfer of wealth through land rent to their parents generation). But in arguing for a laissez-faire approach the only people enriched would be country landowners, and housebuilders, as very little of the uplift in land value would be transferred to buyers, and even then those buying are those able to afford low or no mortgages, those with existing capital. A typical Tory approach pretending to help the poor but actually enhancing rentier unearned income. Only truly radical policies, of giving a basic income funded by the unearned increment of land value uplifts, aimed at breaking up large concentrations of landed property, can overcome this.
It is also incredible to think that local areas whose politics revolve around p[reserving and enhancing house prices will vote for extra housing whose purpose is to lower it. The whole idea, like all of the conservative planning reforms, are founded on an impossible contradiction.
It does lead to an interesting though experiment though. Think of the 260,000 extra houses needed over the next 20 years. Imagine that all of the 80,000 off English villages were sent names of the 60 houses each of newly forming households they had to allocate land for. They could either buy them off or buy extra land elsewhere to transfer the plots to. This would of course lead to a massive transfer of wealth. Behind all of the rhetoric of ‘imposed’ targets lies true interest – the interests of Daily Express readers who used to check daily how much the value of their homes had risen.