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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle