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.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.