Miliband to pledge to build a million new homes in his speech

A mass housebuilding programme designed to stimulate growth and employment, and limit price rises, could be the game-changer Labour so badly needs.

As I revealed earlier this week, it is housebuilding that will the central theme of Ed Miliband's speech tomorrow. The Labour leader will pledge to build one million new homes over the course of the next parliament in the biggest building programme for a generation.

All three of the main parties have identified housing as one of the defining political issues of the moment but while the coalition's Help To Buy scheme is inflating demand, it does little to address what Miliband rightly calls the "fundamental problem" of supply. He will announce that Sir Michael Lyons, the former council chief executive and former BBC Trust chairman, will chair a Rebuilding Britain Commission to locate sites for new towns and garden cities akin to Milton Keynes and Welwyn Garden City. The commission will also introduce a new "right to grow" status which will force town halls to draw up housebuilding plans with neighbouring councils. In addition, Miliband will pledge to tackle the problem of land-banking by giving councils the power to charge developers for sitting on land with planning permission, or to issue compulsory purchase orders.

As a policy, a mass housebuilding programme ticks all the boxes: it is easy to explain and offers a powerful dividing line with the Tories. It would stimulate growth and employment, help to bring down long-term borrowing (for every £100 that is invested in housebuilding £350 is generated in return) and reduce welfare spending. It would be a literal fulfilment of Labour's pledge to "rebuild Britain" after austerity, just as the 1945 government did after the war. Jack Dromey, the shadow housing minister, said: "The next Labour government will tackle Britain’s housing crisis by building homes on a scale no government has done for a generation and in doing so creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and apprenticeships." After months in which many of Miliband's supporters have lamented the absence of a signature policy, this could well be the political game-changer he so badly needs.

In an attempt to position Labour as the party of small business, Miliband will also announce a £790m cut in tax rates for smaller firms, funded by reversing the planned cut in corporation tax from 21% to 20% in 2015. The cut in business rates would apply to 1.5 million businesses with an annual rental value of £50,000 or less, saving firms an average of £450 a year and as much as £2,000. Upon entering office in 2015, Labour would return rates to their 2014 level and then freeze them in 2016. It would also reconsider the coalition's decision to postpone the business rate revaluation until 2017, which will benefit prosperous parts of the country at the expense of poorer ones.

Ed Miliband applauds Ed Balls after his speech to the Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.