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15 June 2024

Labour is afraid to own its housing policy

The party is offering a serious break from the Tories on housing, but they seem unwilling to admit it.

By Jonn Elledge

It is telling that the most radical bit of the housing section in Labour‘s manifesto is pitched as quietly conservative. “Under the Conservatives, greenbelt land is regularly released for development but haphazardly and often for speculative housebuilding,” the document notes. Labour, apparently, would do the same but better, prioritising “grey belt” (essentially: bits of green belt that actually suck, of which there are many), and introducing “golden rules, to ensure development benefits communities and nature”.

What those rules are or how they’d work is unclear – but it shows a commitment to reframing the debate, to make it possible to release more land for housing, while maintaining protections for genuinely nice bits of greenery (the often misleading label “green belt” has been an annoyingly successful bit of branding). It also suggests strongly that the Tories have been concreting the green belt anyway, they’ve just been doing it badly: Labour, the implication goes, would do it properly. This is an admission – “we are going to build on the greenbelt” – dressed up as “steady as it goes” continuity policy.

This strategy, of offering a radical break with the Tories while pretending to be a mere correction of them, runs through the party’s housing policies like a stick of rock. The manifesto says it will improve the lot of renters by promising to “immediately abolish Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions”, something the Tories have been promising for literally years, yet somehow have never quite found the parliamentary time for. A Labour government would merely finish what the Tories started.

But it would also “prevent private renters being exploited and discriminated against, empower them to challenge unreasonable rent increases and take steps to decisively raise standards, including extending Awaab’s Law [a duty on social landlords to investigate and address health hazards named after a toddler who died after breathing in spores from mould] to the private sector”. If actually delivered, all this would add up to a substantial shift in power from private landlords to their tenants. Again, though, the suggestion is no swing voter needs worry: it’s just what the Tories were doing, only better.

Elsewhere, the promise to update the national planning policy framework, “to undo damaging Conservative changes, including restoring mandatory housing targets” or to “review the increased right to buy discounts introduced in 2012 and increasing protections on newly built social housing” implies that Labour is just resetting us to how things used to be. For a time – he seems to have abandoned this line – Rishi Sunak could not appear in public without warning that Labour would take the country “back to square one”. “Remember square one?” asks the party’s manifesto. “Weren’t you happier there?”

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There are quite a few more housing pledges, which I’m going to rush through due to lack of space, and which fall largely under the headline of “sure, but I’ll believe it when I see it”. Additional planning officers, paid for through stamp duty surcharge on foreign owners, would probably speed up the planning system but won’t deal with the fundamental collapse in funding and expertise in local councils. The promise of “the biggest increase in social and affordable housebuilding in a generation” sounds lovely – but there’s no funding specified (of course there isn’t), merely talk of “strengthen[ing] planning obligations to ensure new developments provide more affordable homes”. And it’s not clear that placing more obligations on private developers won’t also reduce the number of homes they build. Likewise, reforms of compulsory purchase rules to make land assembly easier, a new generation of new towns, “cross-boundary strategic planning” – these all sound great, but there’s no explanation of how the difficult bits will be done.

Ominously, there’s a promise “to support first-time buyers who struggle to save for a large deposit, with lower mortgage costs”. That sounds unnervingly reminiscent of Help to Buy, which helped bid up prices by increasing demand without increasing supply. If all the stuff about grey belt and local plans really does produce the promised 1.5 million homes in the next parliament, perhaps that won’t be a problem: Labour, we are told, “will not be afraid to make full use of intervention powers to build the houses we need”. Again, though, that is a fairly substantial “if”.

There are a couple of things here, most notably the rental reform bill, that could make a big immediate difference to people’s lives. But most of these promises will be more difficult to deliver, and more contentious on the way. It’s one thing to force councils to have local plans: it’s quite another to enforce them and turn them into actual bricks and mortar.

In the same way, people may applaud new towns or grey-belt development in the abstract. But will that support stay strong in the face of inevitable local opposition? Labour’s coalition may contain younger and more precarious voters than the Tory one. That doesn’t mean it’ll hold its nerve at the first difficult council by-election. If this crisis was easy to solve, someone would have done it already.

[See also: Labour’s manifesto is quietly radical]

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