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Osborne's housing plans are too little, too late

After four years of empty rhetoric, the best the Chancellor could do was to recycle an announcement from 2012 with a commitment to fewer homes.

The best the Chancellor could do was to recycle an announcement.
George Osborne meets a couple at the Berkeley Homes Royal Arsenal Riverside development in Woolwich. Photograph: Getty Images.

Yesterday George Osborne announced the government’s intention to build a Garden City in Ebbsfleet and to extend the Help to Buy scheme until 2020. Had this been 2010, the Chancellor might have been able to expect some praise for his decision to announce the creation of the former. A rapid move would have been deserving of some recognition. Instead, in 2010, the first decision ministers took was to cut the budget for affordable homes by 60 per cent - a choice which effectively cut off at the knees affordable housebuilding.

A year on, and the then housing minister, Grant Shapps, wrote an article on the merits of the idea of Garden Cities. It’s an interesting piece but readers will have been entitled to ask "where’s the beef?" since there was no policy or action behind it, just talk. Six months later, we were treated to some more warm words on Garden Cities but this time in a speech by the Prime Minister who promised a "consultation" later that year.

Another six months later, and this time it was the turn of the Deputy Prime Minister to talk in glowing terms about the principles of Garden Cities - he went further promising a "prospectus". Then, for the whole of 2013, despite the number of homes built slipping to the lowest peacetime level since the 1920s, the government went quiet on Garden Cities.

Earlier this year, we learned that there was a secret plan to build Garden Cities in at least two locations which was being suppressed by David Cameron who was running scared of his own backbenchers despite a national housing crisis.

Back to the present day, and George Osborne has announced the government’s intention to build a Garden City of 15,000 homes in Ebbsfleet. An announcement which could hardly seem less impressive after nearly four years of empty rhetoric and suppressed reports until it became clear that the government had already announced a scheme at Ebbsfleet a year and a half ago to build 20,000 homes, 5,000 more than Osborne announced yesterday.

The Chancellor also had nothing to say about the principles on which Garden Cities are founded. They include strong vision and leadership, provision of mixed-tenure homes and housing types that are affordable for ordinary people which includes a strong element of social housing and a strong commitment to tackling climate change and access to green space for local communities. Compare these with the record of David Cameron who has shown no leadership whatsoever in tackling the housing crisis, who has all but abandoned social housing and appears intent on its destruction. And whose record on tackling climate change can be summed by his own statement to "get rid of all the green crap". One does not hold out much hope for the true principles of Garden Cities being implemented.

On the second part of the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday, the extension of Help to Buy, Labour has always been clear that we support help for first time-buyers. But soaring house prices and a shortage of homes mean the very first-time buyers the scheme should be helping are finding it ever harder to afford a home of their own. George Osborne has claimed that the scheme will build up to 120,000 homes, but the National Audit Office has said it cannot confirm the government’s assumptions of how many homes will be built because ministers have failed to robustly assess its impact.

As Ed Balls said on Saturday, we need a Help to Build policy to boost housing supply and tackle the cost-of-living crisis, alongside a reformed Help to Buy scheme. We want to see guarantees that help small and medium-sized builders to access finance – through the banks – to get them building. Failure to tackle this crisis will mean home ownership will remain out of reach of many low and middle-income earners, rents will continue to rise faster than wages and waiting lists will grow ever longer.

George Osborne’s announcement yesterday on Ebbsfleet will not be seen as a sign of success but one of failure. After four years of empty rhetoric, the best the Chancellor could do was to recycle an announcement from 2012 with a commitment to fewer homes. To tackle the housing shortage, so central to the cost-of-living crisis, we need a government that is prepared to take real action, not just talk. That’s why Labour has committed to getting 200,000 homes a year built by 2020, including by building a new generation of new towns and garden cities.

Ed Miliband has appointed Sir Michael Lyons to lead an independent housing commission with one aim: delivering a roadmap of how the next Labour government can begin addressing the housing shortage immediately on entering office. A One Nation Labour Government won’t wait four years - we’ll get started on day one and we’ll show the leadership and determination to tackle the housing shortage, address the cost-of-living crisis and meet the aspirations of people across our country.

Emma Reynolds is shadow housing minister and MP for Wolverhampton North East.