George Osborne meets a couple at the Berkeley Homes Royal Arsenal Riverside development in Woolwich. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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.

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.

Emma Reynolds is MP for Wolverhampton North East and former shadow Europe minister. She sits on the committee for exiting the European Union. 

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.