Labour steals a march on the Tories by vowing to punish land hoarding

Miliband says councils could be given the power to fine developers who fail to build on sites with planning permission, or to buy the land back.

In recent years we've heard much about how Britain's arcane planning laws are preventing housebuilding but much less about another problem, that of "landbanking". This involves developers sitting on vacant land and waiting for its value to go up in order to extract the maximum profit. As a result, thousands of houses with planning permission are left unbuilt. Figures published by the Local Government Association show that there are 400,000 homes with permission that have not developed, while in London, where demand is highest, there are 170,000, this at a time when housing starts have fallen to 98,280, less than half the number required to meet need (230,000). But while the public suffers, developers profit. As the 2011 annual report of Barratt Homes bluntly stated, “During the year we have focused on securing the best price for every sale. Across the group we have focused on maximising value rather than driving volumes.” In 2011-12, developers' profits rose by 72 per cent to nearly £1bn. 

With this in mind, Ed Miliband will use his speech to Labour's National Policy Forum in Birmingham tomorrow to announce that the party is exploring measures to force them to build. This could include giving local authorities the power to charge them for sitting on land with planning permission or, as a last resort, issuing a compulsory purchase order. Miliband will say:

There is nothing more important in family life than having a home. Nobody should be in any doubt about this Labour Party’s determination to rebuild this country, get our construction industry working again and give families a decent chance of owning a decent home for their children just like their parents did before them.

But to do that we have to be willing to confront some of the obstacles to house building. Across our country, there are firms sitting on land, waiting for it to accumulate in value and not building on it. Land-owners with planning permission, who simply will not build.

We have to change that. That’s why as part of our Policy Review we will consult in the coming months on how to get that building started. All options should be on the table, including giving local authorities real power to say to the worst offenders that they should either use the land, or lose the land. Permission to build should mean land-owners build. If there is unnecessary hoarding, developers should be encouraged to do what they are in business to do: build houses.

By raising this issue, the Labour leader has stolen a march on the Tories. In recent months, Boris Johnson and Conservative MP Jake Berry have proposed penalties for landbanking, but we've heard nothing from the government. After Miliband's intervention, it'll be worth watching to see if that changes. 

Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.