1. Governance
December 6, 2019

Does the Labour party actually want to solve the housing crisis?

By Sam Watling

Say what you like about the housing section of the Labour Party’s manifesto – and I’m about to – but no-one can deny that it is well written. It movingly invokes the “horror of the Grenfell tower fire” as an example of the “failing housing system”. It acknowledges that “everyone has the right to a decent secure home” and pledges to make this a reality. 

Yet if mere rhetoric solved the housing crisis there would be no crisis by now. After all, as the party’s own manifesto notes, the 1945 Labour government promised that “every family in the island” should have “a good standard of accommodation”. Yet in 2019, this is still a pipe dream for millions of people. 

It is the policy, not the rhetoric, that matters. And in fairness the headline policy is substantial, aiming for councils to build 100,000 homes and housing associations to build 50,000 homes a year by the end of a hypothetical labour administration. 

But there is policy in theory and policy in practice. Building housing, particularly social housing, faces a large number of political obstacles. Lest we forget, Tony Blair also promised a programme of social housing but failed to carry it out. 

First, where should the houses be put? We do know. From the manifesto, we do know where the houses won’t be built: it promises to “protect the green belt”. However, apart from ruling out 13 per cent of the country and a large number of golf courses and car parks, the manifesto has little to say on location. Less to say, in fact, than their 2017 manifesto, which specified “a new generation of New Towns to build the homes we need”. 

Angela Rayner said the programme would use brownfield sites; but in most cities, the social and affordable housing need outstrips the number of houses that can be built on brownfield by a factor of two or more. For example, according to demographic projections London needs at least 30,972 social homes a year and 11,869 affordable homes every year, giving a total need of 42,841 homes. However according to Shelter brownfield land is only capable of producing a maximum of 18,000 homes a year in the city, a gap of more than 30,000 homes every year. Equally, rural and suburban communities, with scarce brownfield, also suffer from the housing crisis and need affordable housing. 

So it looks like Labour is either unwilling or unable to say where most of these houses would go. Perhaps the solution is their proposal to establish a duty for councils “to plan and build these homes in their area”. In short, it will force councils to do the “dirty work” of allocating land for social housing.

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This solution may cause conflict. Social housing is not exempt from the fact it may affect people’s views, damage green space and put pressure on local services. As councils are elected by residents often angered by this, many councils are resistant to house-building in general, including affordable housing. Many affluent areas explicitly do not want affordable housing and abuse the planning system to keep poorer people out. 

There have been suggestions intended to mitigate these problems and enable communities to support local housebuilding. Labour is committed to reforming the land market, proposing the establishment of a sovereign land trust to acquire cheap land. It may wish to consider extending these powers to local authorities to enable councils to share some of the increase in land value that comes from development to benefit the local community and make the necessary housebuilding more popular. Equally, the party is always welcome to use YIMBY proposals on street level planning to enable councils to build affordable “missing middle” housing with local support. 

Whether the social housebuilding programme ever happens depends on what Labour is prepared to do to get these houses built in practice. It must either innovate with the planning system to make the building of affordable housing more popular where locals currently oppose it. Otherwise, Labour must be prepared to force many local authorities to meet their affordable housing needs. 

If Labour truly believes its manifesto’s claim that “the gap between the housing haves and have-nots is at the heart of the injustice in our country today” then it must be prepared to consider how it will get housing built in reality. Otherwise, its policies will not be realised and added to the long list of failures that have, since 1945, left decent housing for all as a dream printed in manifestos.

This is the first installment of a two-part article. The second will look at the Conservatives’ housing promises.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.

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