Miliband's plan to increase housebuilding: the five big ideas

How Labour plans to meet its target of 200,000 new homes a year by 2020, including "use it or lose it" powers to tackle land hoarding and a "right to grow" for councils.

Ed Miliband has made the need to dramatically increase the rate of housebuilding one of the key themes of his leadership and he's returning to the subject today with the launch of Michael Lyons's commission for Labour. At present, building is at its lowest level since the 1920s, with just 107,950 housing completions in the last year. Miliband's aim is to nearly double this figure to 200,000 by 2020, but how will he do it? Here are the five main ideas that have emerged so far. 

1. "Use it or lose it" powers to tackle land hoarding

At present, there are 523,700 homes with planning permission that have not been completed. One reason for this is the practice of land banking, with investment funds, historic landowners and developers sitting on vacant land and waiting for its value to go up.

Miliband will today highlight figures showing that the profits of the four biggest developers - Barratt, Berkeley, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey - have risen by 557% since the coalition took office "even though homes have been built at their slowest rate witnessed in peacetime for almost a century". The number of houses completed by these firms increased by just 4,067 in 2012 and the number of affordable homes built last year fell by 26%.

Miliband will seek to address this problem by giving local authorities the power to charge developers for sitting on land with planning permission or, if necessary, to purchase it themselves (through compulsory purchase orders). He will say today: "We will back home builders. But we will tell land hoarders with sites that have planning permission that they must use it or lose it."

2. A new "right to grow" for councils 

Miliband will aim to tackle what he calls "home blocker" councils by introducing a new "right to grow" for local authorities whose building plans are currently being stymied by neighbouring councils. He will deliver his speech in Stevenage, where the local authority has seen its plan to build 8,600 homes continually blocked by North Hertfordshire Council. Here's the key extract: 

"Stevenage is a great community - an example of how successful new towns can be. But for decades now it has been waiting to be completed and for decades it has been thwarted by home blocking councils on its borders. But plans to build almost 10,000 desperately-needed homes on the edge of this town have been blocked every single step of the way by North Hertfordshire Council, even though that would take the pressure off other areas in the county.

"There have been consultations galore, planning permission granted and lengthy appeals. The only winners have been lawyers, on whom Stevenage has had to spend more than £500,000 since 2001 on this issue alone.

"North Herts Council is a home blocking council. It is bad for its neighbours, bad for its own residents where the housing waiting list has got ever longer, and bad for those who wish to protect their market towns from over-development. This is a stick-in-the-mud council. But a Labour government will not let desperately needed housing be stuck in the mud of North Hertfordshire."

He will add: "Of course it is right that local communities have a say about where housing goes. But councils cannot be allowed to frustrate continually the efforts of others councils to get homes built. So the next Labour government will unblock this planning process and unlock the potential to build tens of thousands of new homes where they are needed."

A Labour campaign poster from the 1945 election

3. Providing Treasury guarantees for new towns and garden cities

Labour plans to help local authorities design and build new towns and garden cities by offering Treasury guarantees modelled on those currently used for Help to Buy and infrastructure projects. As Ed Balls said in his recent speech to the National Housebuilding Council, "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."

4. Reforming finance rules to allow more council housing to be built

If Miliband is to reach his target of 200,000 homes, he will not be able to do so without a major expansion of council housing. Labour has promised to "simplify rules surrounding the Housing Revenue Account to give local authorities more flexibility in how existing public funding is spent".

As shadow London minister Sadiq Khan, who has taken a particular interest in the issue, suggested in my interview with him last week, this could include lifting the cap on council borrowing to allow local authorities to build more social housing (with the borrowing serviced by the income from planned rents). He told me: "That’s one of the things we’re exploring with Ed Balls...Labour councils in London are currently building twice as many houses as Conservative local authorities, three times as many as Liberal Democrt ones, but they're frustrated that they can't build more because of the Housing Revenue Account cap." 

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.

Other options include allowing local authorities to share services and to pool their borrowing limits (as proposed by Vince Cable), so councils who want to build more, but have reached their limits, are able to do so. 

5. A self-build revolution

Influenced by the example of France, where more than half of new homes are constructed by their owners (and where 341,808 in total have been built in the last year), Miliband will call for a "self-build" revolution to reduce the dominance of the big four developers and to help expand supply.

The Lyons Commission will look at giving councils the right to stipulate that a portion of development land is sold directly to people who want to build themselves. 

But will it be enough?

Miliband's target of 200,000 homes a year by 2020 might seem ambitious but it's still below the level the UK needs merely to meet need. 

As a recent Policy Exchange report noted, the UK needs a minimum of 1.5 million new homes from 2015 to 2020, or 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. As the report said, "1 million homes over five years, around 200,000 homes in England, is actually a failure to keep up with predicted housing need, which is itself likely to be an underestimate of housing demand. Indeed, such language is unhelpful in many respects, as both need and demand are to some extent arbitrary. A young person living at home with their parents but who wants to leave might be seen as having a 'demand' or 'need' for housing, depending on how this is defined. They are not homeless, but they want to move out."

But by focusing relentlessly on expanding supply, while the Tories focus on inflating prices through Help to Buy, Miliband has at least got his priorities right. 

Ed Miliband 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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7 problems with the Snooper’s Charter, according to the experts

In short: it was written by people who "do not know how the internet works".

A group of representatives from the UK Internet Service Provider’s Association (ISPA) headed to the Home Office on Tuesday to point out a long list of problems they had with the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill (that’s Snooper’s Charter to you and me). Below are simplified summaries of their main points, taken from the written evidence submitted by Adrian Kennard, of Andrews and Arnold, a small ISP, to the department after the meeting. 

The crucial thing to note is that these people know what they're talking about - the run the providers which would need to completely change their practices to comply with the bill if it passed into law. And their objections aren't based on cost or fiddliness - they're about how unworkable many of the bill's stipulations actually are. 

1. The types of records the government wants collected aren’t that useful

The IP Bill places a lot of emphasis on “Internet Connection Records”; i.e. a list of domains you’ve visited, but not the specific pages visited or messages sent.

But in an age of apps and social media, where we view vast amounts of information through single domains like Twitter or Facebook, this information might not even help investigators much, as connections can last for days, or even months. Kennard gives the example of a missing girl, used as a hypothetical case by the security services to argue for greater powers:

 "If the mobile provider was even able to tell that she had used twitter at all (which is not as easy as it sounds), it would show that the phone had been connected to twitter 24 hours a day, and probably Facebook as well… this emotive example is seriously flawed”

And these connection records are only going to get less relevant over time - an increasing number of websites including Facebook and Google encrypt their website under "https", which would make finding the name of the website visited far more difficult.

2. …but they’re still a massive invasion of privacy

Even though these records may be useless when someone needs to be found or monitored, the retention of Internet Connection Records (IRCs) is still very invasive – and can actually yield more information than call records, which Theresa May has repeatedly claimed are the non-digital equivalent of ICRs. 

Kennard notes: “[These records] can be used to profile them and identify preferences, political views, sexual orientation, spending habits and much more. It is useful to criminals as it would easily confirm the bank used, and the time people leave the house, and so on”. 

This information might not help find a missing girl, but could build a profile of her which could be used by criminals, or for over-invasive state surveillance. 

3. "Internet Connection Records" aren’t actually a thing

The concept of a list of domain names visited by a user referred to in the bill is actually a new term, derived from “Call Data Record”. Compiling them is possible, but won't be an easy or automatic process.

Again, this strongly implies that those writing the bill are using their knowledge of telecommunications surveillance, not internet era-appropriate information. Kennard calls for the term to be removed, or at least its “vague and nondescript nature” made clear in the bill.

4. The surveillance won’t be consistent and could be easy to dodge

In its meeting with the ISPA, the Home Office implied that smaller Internet service providers won't be forced to collect these ICR records, as it would use up a lot of their resources. But this means those seeking to avoid surveillance could simply move over to a smaller provider.

5. Conservative spin is dictating the way we view the bill 

May and the Home Office are keen for us to see the surveillance in the bill as passive: internet service providers must simply log the domains we visit, which will be looked at in the event that we are the subject of an investigation. But as Kennard notes, “I am quite sure the same argument would not work if, for example, the law required a camera in every room in your house”. This is a vast new power the government is asking for – we shouldn’t allow it to play it down.

6. The bill would allow our devices to be bugged

Or, in the jargon, used in the draft bill, subjected to “equipment interference”. This could include surveillance of everything on a phone or laptop, or even turning on its camera or webcam to watch someone. The bill actually calls for “bulk equipment interference” – when surely, as Kennard notes, “this power…should only be targeted at the most serious of criminal suspects" at most.

7. The ability to bug devices would make them less secure

Devices can only be subject to “equipment interference” if they have existing vulnerabilities, which could also be exploited by criminals and hackers. If security services know about these vulnerabilities, they should tell the manufacturer about them. As Kennard writes, allowing equipment interference "encourages the intelligence services to keep vulnerabilities secret” so they don't lose surveillance methods. Meanwhile, though, they're laying the population open to hacks from cyber criminals. 


So there you have it  – a compelling soup of misused and made up terms, and ethically concerning new powers. Great stuff. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.