Does the Labour party actually want to solve the housing crisis?

Really, though? Image: Getty.

Say what you like about the housing section of the Labour Party's manifesto – and I’m about to – but no-one can deny that it is well written. It movingly invokes the “horror of the Grenfell tower fire” as an example of the “failing housing system”. It acknowledges that “everyone has the right to a decent secure home” and pledges to make this a reality. 

Yet if mere rhetoric solved the housing crisis there would be no crisis by now. After all, as the party’s own manifesto notes, the 1945 Labour government promised that “every family in the island” should have “a good standard of accommodation”. Yet in 2019, this is still a pipe dream for millions of people. 

It is the policy, not the rhetoric, that matters. And in fairness the headline policy is substantial, aiming for councils to build 100,000 homes and housing associations to build 50,000 homes a year by the end of a hypothetical labour administration. 

But there is policy in theory and policy in practice. Building housing, particularly social housing, faces a large number of political obstacles. Lest we forget, Tony Blair also promised a programme of social housing but failed to carry it out. 

First, where should the houses be put? We do know. From the manifesto, we do know where the houses won’t be built: it promises to “protect the green belt”. However, apart from ruling out 13 per cent of the country and a large number of golf courses and car parks, the manifesto has little to say on location. Less to say, in fact, than their 2017 manifesto, which specified “a new generation of New Towns to build the homes we need”. 

Angela Rayner said the programme would use brownfield sites; but in most cities, the social and affordable housing need outstrips the number of houses that can be built on brownfield by a factor of two or more. For example, according to demographic projections London needs at least 30,972 social homes a year and 11,869 affordable homes every year, giving a total need of 42,841 homes. However according to Shelter brownfield land is only capable of producing a maximum of 18,000 homes a year in the city, a gap of more than 30,000 homes every year. Equally, rural and suburban communities, with scarce brownfield, also suffer from the housing crisis and need affordable housing. 

So it looks like Labour is either unwilling or unable to say where most of these houses would go. Perhaps the solution is their proposal to establish a duty for councils “to plan and build these homes in their area”. In short, it will force councils to do the “dirty work” of allocating land for social housing.

This solution may cause conflict. Social housing is not exempt from the fact it may affect people's views, damage green space and put pressure on local services. As councils are elected by residents often angered by this, many councils are resistant to house-building in general, including affordable housing. Many affluent areas explicitly do not want affordable housing and abuse the planning system to keep poorer people out. 

There have been suggestions intended to mitigate these problems and enable communities to support local housebuilding. Labour is committed to reforming the land market, proposing the establishment of a sovereign land trust to acquire cheap land. It may wish to consider extending these powers to local authorities to enable councils to share some of the increase in land value that comes from development to benefit the local community and make the necessary housebuilding more popular. Equally, the party is always welcome to use YIMBY proposals on street level planning to enable councils to build affordable “missing middle” housing with local support. 

Whether the social housebuilding programme ever happens depends on what Labour is prepared to do to get these houses built in practice. It must either innovate with the planning system to make the building of affordable housing more popular where locals currently oppose it. Otherwise, Labour must be prepared to force many local authorities to meet their affordable housing needs. 

If Labour truly believes its manifesto’s claim that “the gap between the housing haves and have-nots is at the heart of the injustice in our country today” then it must be prepared to consider how it will get housing built in reality. Otherwise, its policies will not be realised and added to the long list of failures that have, since 1945, left decent housing for all as a dream printed in manifestos.

This is the first installment of a two-part article. The second will look at the Conservatives’ housing promises.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).