Peter McLaughlin

16Joined Dec 2021


Cause Area: UK Housing Policy

Just on the Gove point: I have no private information, and perhaps I should have hedged more (the verb 'seems' was an attempt to communicate uncertainty, but reading my comment back I wasn't clear enough); but just going on Gove's patterns of behaviour, I have quite low confidence that he's still particularly enamoured with Street Votes, albeit with large error bars on that number.
Perhaps I am inferring too much from an absence of evidence, but Gove definitely has a pattern in basically all the portfolios he's held: he appears to value novelty in policy for its own sake, and jumps at a lot of proposed reforms that are radical and 'clever'; but, precisely because of this, is very fast-moving and goes through policy proposals very quickly, leaving a lot on the table that he seemed to be a big fan of. I make no judgment on the value of this approach, but I think it's relatively clear that it is Gove's approach. This is partly explained by the time he spent with Cummings as his SpAd, but only partly - I think it's more generally just part of his political 'style', that maybe he learned from Cummings but has retained since then.
The endorsement of Street Votes seemed to me to fit this pattern; and because he's since become relatively silent on housing policy, my confidence that he still cares much about Street Votes is low. But I've got large error bars because (a) I'm inferring from Gove not saying something, which is always a risky way of figuring out what someone thinks (b) my reasoning is based on trying to identify patterns of behaviour in someone I don't actually know or have any particular insight into, and (c) a lot of the evidence could be explained by the alternative hypothesis of 'Gove genuinely believes in the policy, but hasn't said much more because the government has just been putting out fires for the last few months'. My prior for 'Gove says he likes a policy just because it's novel and clever, but has no real commitment to it' is thus doing much of the work here, and you can very reasonably make a different judgment.

I don't have much to say about the rest of your comment except that, yes, I think your considerations are totally reasonable; I think there are some legitimate differences of judgment here.

Cause Area: UK Housing Policy

I agree that many comfortable middle class families will not want to be disturbed. But some of those in more difficult circumstances may find the large incentives very appealing.

Just to record that this has changed my mind substantially - I think I was being overreliant on anecdotal evidence which suffered from a selection bias I wasn't taking full account of. Thanks for pointing this out, I've now updated towards you.

Cause Area: UK Housing Policy

Thank you for posting this - I'm going to get a bit critical in this comment, but I think this is a super important topic (one that I've cared about since long before I seriously engaged with EA), and I'm happy to see someone post about it.

Still, though, I don't think a convincing case has been made in this post that funding UK housing policy orgs is cost-effective (even though I suspect that it actually is cost-effective - at least, that it crosses the 100x bar). Some thoughts:

- I have doubts about PricedOut as an organisation. I vaguely know a few people who volunteer for them and I think they are generally very interesting, smart, and capable, but I am not particularly convinced that their interventions are sufficiently effectiveness-oriented. Would be interested to know what convinced you otherwise in conversation with them.

- I'm not so sure that this issue really is timely, unfortunately. Gove's support for Street Votes seems to have been a passing thing, and the window for action may well have closed. This is especially true given the very weak position of the government at the moment: a couple of years ago this government would have had the power to push through reform, but I don't think that's true any more. (Consider: the planning reform bill was basically gutted after a single by-election loss last year that, with hindsight, didn't actually seem to turn on housing and planning; now that the government's popularity and Tory poll numbers are in freefall, and backbenchers are much more empowered to rebel, the government would probably be much less likely to risk offending its core of homeowning voters and its many NIMBY backbenchers.)

- It seems to me that Street Votes just wouldn't produce enough homes. There are a few reasons for this, but the big one I'm worried about is culture: while the analyses that have been done are completely correct on the economic incentives, there are pretty strong cultural incentives that point in the opposite direction. The UK (as well as much of the Western world) has a powerful culture of homeownership, meaning not just 'owner-occupied dwellings are valued' but that there's a certain mythology to the goal of owning one's own home and having control over it. Consider, for example, the incredibly strong political taboo on cutting subsidies on social care even to wealthy homeowners, precisely because paying for social care might require some of them to sell their house - not to become poor, they'd remain wealthy, just to sell their house and start renting. (If you missed the latest re-emergence of this controversy, just look at the tone of this coverage.) I think these will push quite strongly in the direction of people not endorsing building, because the market-driven logic of Street Votes pushes against the mythology of homeownership. Anecdotally, I have discussed Street Votes with a pretty substantial number of homeowners in various contexts, and I very rarely have gotten the positive response that advocates imagine.
It's very hard to measure these cultural effects, which makes it completely understandable that analyses have left them out so far; but I think it's impossible to ignore them in a full analysis of housing policy, not least because it's a culture of homeowning that leads to supply restrictions in the first place. Perhaps when push comes to shove, the reality of the economic benefits would overcome cultural hesitancies, but I am not as convinced of the strengths of economic incentives in this area compared to a lot of YIMBYs.

- These orgs seem quite concentrated in and around London. On the one hand, this makes sense, as that's where the crisis is most acute; but from a political perspective, it seems hard to see how any reform passes in the short run without at least some work in more rural areas,* for three reasons: 1) opposition to reform is concentrated in these constituencies; 2) in the short run, Tory governments are at significant risk of rebellion from MPs representing these constituencies; 3) any potential Labour government would not have increasing housing supply as a high enough priority to force it through without support from CLPs outside London. But reducing opposition in these areas seems substantially less tractable.

Ultimately, I second MaxGhenis' hope that someone might write up a rigourous and comprehensive EA analysis of housing policy interventions: both your post and the FP report are really solid stuff, but unfortunately they largely leaves out all the positive externalities on climate, migration, quality of life, etc. beyond growth. It's really these that convince me this is probably an area worth funding. (For example, I am of the opinion that housing policy is the primary driver behind rising inequality in the Western world, and so the downstream effects of improvements to housing policy would be pretty enormous both economically and politically.)

*I'm specifically thinking about the seats the Lib Dems are targeting using the label 'Blue Wall'.