Why won't Osborne let councils borrow to build housing? Even Tories want him to

Conservative councillors and Boris Johnson are among those calling for the Chancellor to lift the "artificial cap" on borrowing but, for entirely ideological reasons, he still won't act.

Demand for housing might be surging owing to George Osborne's Help to Buy but supply remains pitifully constrained. The Local Government Association reveals today that 381,390 homes have been given planning permission but have yet to be built. Rather than the planning system (as many on the right claim), it is a lack of finance that is blame. 

Tory councillor Mike Jones, the chairman of the LGA's environment and housing board, has responded by calling for the government to lift the "artificial cap" placed on councils' borrowing and allow them to build more affordable homes. He said:

While there has been progress made, this risks being undermined if we do not find a way to ensure developers keep up with demand. These figures conclusively show that it is not the planning system holding back the building of much-needed new homes.

The challenge now lies in actually getting houses built. Government schemes to help buyers access finance risk creating a bubble if there isn't an increase in house building to match it.

Government has an unrivalled opportunity to create jobs, provide tens of thousands of homes and help the economy without having to find a single extra penny.

New homes are badly needed and councils want to get on with building them. The common sense answer is for the Treasury to remove its house-building block and let us get on with it.

In his recent manifesto for London 2020 Vision, Boris Johnson similarly argued: 

We should allow London’s councils to borrow more for house building - as they do on continental Europe - since the public sector clearly gains a bankable asset and there is no need for this to appear on the books as public borrowing.

In policy terms, it is a no-brainer. The Chartered Institute of Housing estimates that raising the cap by £7bn could enable the construction of 60,000 homes over the next five years, creating 23,500 jobs and adding £5.6bn to the economy.

So what's holding Osborne back? In a word, ideology. Unlike in other European countries, borrowing by councils appears on the national balance sheet making the deficit appear larger than it is. For a Chancellor determined to ensure that borrowing falls every year (to the extent that he delayed payments to institutions such as the World Bank and the UN and forced departments to underspend by £10.9bn), regardless of other policy objectives, lifting the cap is out of the question. 

In an attempt to win Osborne round, Vince Cable proposed allowing councils to pool their borrowing limits so those not using their full entitlement can donate it to authorities with housing waiting lists, but this too was blocked. As Cable recently told the Social Liberal Forum: "What is stopping them? Frankly, Tory dogma. And the Tories are hiding behind Treasury methodology, saying that more borrowing by councils beyond permitted limits will break the fixed rules.

"So even though freeing up this borrowing space would result in tens of thousands more homes being built, and many times more jobs, they would rather start talking about the cuts they want to make, rather than the houses that we should build. That is the difference between Lib Dems and Tories on this matter."

Cable's housing plan will be put forward for endorsement at the Lib Dem conference next month. So long as Osborne continues to resist any reform, he risks being outflanked on an issue of increasing political significance. 

 

 

George Osborne at the Berkeley Homes Royal Arsenal Riverside development in Woolwich. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.