Did Raab make immigration and housing comments for political reasons, by John Geoghegan

In a Sunday Times interview earlier this month, housing minister Dominic Raab said that high levels of immigration had increased house prices over the last 25 years and, if the government cut levels to tens of thousands a year, fewer homes would need to be built.

His comments have not gone down well in the planning, development and housing sectors. Firstly, the impact of immigration on housing is a sensitive issue, to say the least. Any politician wading into the debate needs to tread carefully and to make sure they are armed with sufficient evidence.

Raab’s comments have prompted accusations of unfairly blaming migrants for the housing crisis. Secondly, the relationship between immigration and house price levels is incredibly complex. Though there is debate about the extent of its impact, experts agree immigration is just one of an array of factors that includes an ageing population, housebuilding rates and income levels.

The evidence for Raab’s claim was initially unclear. The relevant research was only belatedly published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) almost a week after the interview and in the face of pressure from the sector and the media. The MHCLG initially said the study would not be made publicly available.

The research shows that, while immigration may have caused a 21 per cent rise in house prices between 1991 and 2016, this is dwarfed by applying the model to income levels, which, it says, would have caused prices to rise by 150 per cent. And the fact the modelling is more than ten years old did not persuade many sceptics.

Thirdly, the comments – suggesting a potential future downturn in housing demand – fly in the face of efforts by communities secretary Sajid Javid to encourage councils to boost their housing numbers. As a result, commentators believe Raab’s comments are unlikely to have gone down well with the housing secretary.

So why did he make them? Some commentators believe that next month’s local elections could be a key reason. While Raab’s interview may have gone down badly among Londonbased experts, it may play well with Conservative voters in the regions. As ever, housing is a hot topic in many local election campaigns. Raab’s calculated comments may offer Tory councillors and candidates something to seize on in the face of unpopular local plans and housing applications.

Raab may also have an eye on his longer term political future, insiders say. With the Conservatives split between the pro-Brexit right and the Remain-leaning centre and a leadership election looming, Raab may have been trying to appeal to the potential future masters of the party. As well as potentially damaging his credentials in the eyes of the sector, a danger in what he said (see News Analysis) is that local councillors could use his comments as a reason to either delay local plan preparation or to try to lower their housing targets. Given the urgent need to plan for more homes, this is something the country can ill afford.

John Geoghegan is deputy editor at Planning magazine john.geoghegan@haymarket.com

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