Balls challenges Osborne to offer new Treasury guarantees for housebuilding

If the Chancellor is willing to offer £12bn of guarantees for mortgage lending, why won't he support New Towns?

While pledging to dramatically expand the rate of housebuilding in the UK if elected (to at least 200,000 a year by 2020), Labour has had less to say about how it will achieve this target. But in a speech to the National Housebuilding Council today, Ed Balls will begin to fill in some of the gaps. 

The shadow chancellor will promise to look at reviving development corporations along the lines of those that constructed the post-war New Towns, noting that they had the power "to acquire, own, manage and dispose of land and property; undertake building operation; provide public utilities; and do anything else necessary to develop the New Town." But he will also warn that they are not a sufficient solution to the problem. Balls will say: "These Corporations generated revenue by selling land and housing, receiving rental income and receiving commercial income. However, they needed up front funding to build the infrastructure and housing which could later be sold at a profit."

In a notable challenge to George Osborne, he will call on the Chancellor to expand the level of Treasury guarantees available for housebuilding. Having offered £12bn of guarantees for mortgages on properties worth up to £600,000 (in the form of Help to Buy), why won't he do the same for New Towns? As Balls will say: 

George Osborne has shown himself willing to use the Government’s balance sheet to guarantee some house building – but in particular demand through guaranteeing household mortgages. And yet we read that the New Towns which you heard about a year ago have stalled.

The Government is providing guarantees of up to £12bn for Help to Buy. He should now step up to the plate to back the supply of new houses in New Towns.

Providing guarantees to Development Corporations could be essential to provide backing for a large-scale growth programme to provide confidence, reduce risk and give credibility to the development.

We cannot afford to dither any longer - and I cannot see a stronger case for the full throated backing of the Chancellor than a step change in housing supply.

To do that we will need the full backing of the Labour Government, including the Treasury, for new towns - willing to devolve the powers, determined to provide the resources, and showing the leadership and vision that is sadly lacking in Government at the moment.

One issue not mentioned in the extracts released by Labour is that of council borrowing. Were the current cap on borrowing to be lifted, local authorities could fund a major expansion of social housing. The Chartered Institute of Housing estimates that raising the caps 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. As Boris Johnson argued in refrence to London in his recent manifesto 2020 Vision, "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."

Yet for entirely ideological reasons, Osborne has rejected this suggestion. 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.

But if Labour is to even get close to building the number of new homes required, it will surely need to do so. As a recent Policy Exchange report noted, he UK needs a minimum of 1.5 million new homes from 2015 to 2020 simply to meet need, 300,000 a year. Around 221,000 new households are expected to be formed each year over this period and there is a significant backlog. Thus, even the eventual target spoken of in Labour circles - a million in five years - falls short. Unlike the Tories, with their reckless aim of stoking a new property boom, Balls and Labour are certainly asking the right questions, but they're not offering all the answers yet. 

Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.