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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder