Election 2017: What are the parties promising on housing?

Good luck with that. Image: Getty.

Remember the housing crisis? You remember: greedy landlords, eye-watering rents, people charging half a million quid for a shed in outer London? We used to talk about it a lot before Brexit? You remember.

Anyway – despite everything else that’s going on, the British housing market is still basically a great big hoover, sucking money out of the pockets of millennials and depositing it in those of rich baby boomers. Fixing this mess remains one of the biggest domestic policy challenges facing this country, and so, one might think, would feature pretty prominent in this election campaign.

The national housing debate yesterday. Image: via GIPHY.

So – what do our glorious leaders have to say about it? Let’s check the manifestos.

The Tories

Housing policy gets two pages of the Conservative manifesto (by way of comparison, the NHS gets four; education five), and starts out thus:

HOMES FOR ALL

We have not built enough homes in this country for generations, and buying o renting a home has become increasingly unaffordable.  If we do not put this right, we will be unable to extend the promise of a decent home, let alone home ownership, to the millions who deserve it.

And, while I was all ready to slate it, it’s not actually too bad.

True, as with housing promises the nation over, it promises big numbers without providing much detail on how they’ll be delivered: a million homes built between 2015 and 2020; another half a million by 2022; 160,000 on government-owned land.

And where we’re going to put those remains an open question – the manifesto promises to continue protecting the green belt, and talk of “mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets” suggests that densification is the order of the day. Why brownfield will be enough now when it hasn’t been in the past is not entirely clear.

So why am I not tearing it to shreds, as is my way? Because, while it’s short of detail, there is at least some clue as to how it’s going to achieve this.

For one thing there’s very un-Tory talk of getting councils building again, providing them with low-cost capital funding, providing they ‘re building “high-quality, sustainable and integrated communities”. That means reforming Compulsory Purchase Orders to make it easier for councils to buy land.

Oh, and while Right to Buy will continue, this bit is interesting:

“We will build new fixed-term social houses, which will be sold privately after ten to fifteen years with an automatic Right to Buy for tenants, the proceeds of which will be recycled into further homes”.

That removes two of the problems with Right to Buy: that it disincentivises councils from building, and that the money it generates gets sucked out of housing altogether.

There’s also talk of ensuring “public sector landowners, and communities themselves, benefit from the increase in land value from urban regeneration and development”. A bigger role for housing associations is hinted at, too, “building on their considerable track record in recent years”.

All in all, this isn’t a radical break with the recent past (the housing white paper is still in effect). And I’m not convinced it’ll work: the figures for new homes promised by the manifesto are almost certainly too optimistic, as manifestos always are; and even if they’re not, they’re only enough to meet current demand, rather than plug the backlog.

But the manifesto is a move away from the Thatcherite orthodoxy that the market would deliver homes, despite the whopping great distortions imposed by land policy and the decades of evidence that the market was doing no such thing. It’s probably progress on the Cameron/Osborne era, at least.

That said, there is one major downside: the manifesto doesn’t mention renters at any point. I was wrong about this: there's a single sentence, confusing lumped into the consumer protection section, not the housing one. It's this:

“We will also improve protections for those who rent, including by looking at how we increase security for good tenants and encouraging landlords to offer longer tenancies as standard.” 

This is positive, I suppose, but it's all very weak, isn't it? A promise to consult and encourage, not one to act or legislate. It's also very odd that it isn't in the housing section.

On balance, then, I stand by my earlier conclusion: if you rent your own home, the Tories still don’t want your vote. Pass it on.

Labour

Despite the vast difference between the two parties on most topics, there’s a fair amount of common ground on housing. Labour too is promising to “invest to build over a million new homes”, which is a similar construction rate to the Tories. It’s also talking about a bigger role for councils and housing associations (100,000 a year, apparently).

What’s more, it too is promising to protect the green belt and prioritise brownfield, though like the Tories it’s a bit vague as to where all these new homes are actually going to go – although a new generation of new towns will be part of the mix.

One area where the two manifestos differs is in their treatment of private renters. For one thing, this one mentions them. Specifically, it’s promising three-year tenancies, and rent rises capped by inflation.

Oh, and a Labour government would introduce new legal minimum standards to ensure properties are “fit for human habitation”, and giving them a mechanism to take legal action if they’re not. Those radical lefties with their crazy ideas

The party is also promising a suspension of right-to buy, and to scrap the bedroom tax.

One oddity in the manifesto is the promise to “guarantee Help to Buy funding until 2027 to give long-term certainty both to first buyers and the housebuilding industry”. That’s a positive move if those new homes get built; if they don’t, it’s just pouring more money in an over-heated market.

Last but not least, Labour is promising to create a new Department for Housing, and to make land ownership more transparent. These things are not sexy, eye-catching promises like the million new homes – but a new housing department would raise the profile of the issue in government. And the fact we don’t know who owns nearly a fifth of England & Wales (seriously) is pretty embarrassing.

Overall, my sense is that Labour have thought less about the mechanics of the housing market than the Tories have (a reflection, I suspect, of not being in government). But the party is at least grappling with the fact that a significant chunk of the British population are renters, not owners, which is something no one seems to have told the Tories.

The LibDems

The yellow lot are promising 300,000 homes a year, in a “my target is bigger than your target” kind of a way. There’s talk of new garden cities (sarcastic yay), letting housing associations and councils borrow to build (sincere yay), and requiring councils’ local plans to plan for 15 year of future housing need (oooh).

The party is also promising a “new government-backed British Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank”, which seems to make sense as a way of plugging the funding and transport gaps that prevent new developments from going ahead. They’re also still banging on about the “rent to own” model, in which rent payments give you a growing stake in a property. How this differs from existing models of shared ownership is not entirely clear.

Perhaps the most interesting LibDem policy is the promise to give tenants first refusal to buy the home they’re living in when landlords want to sell. I’ve no idea if this would make any difference but it sounds like it would annoy landlords so I’m keen.

The others

UKIP goes its own way by giving over more than half of the space it gives to housing (two pages) to its plans for modular housing, which is cheaper to build. It doesn’t mention land, best I can tell, so where they want to put these new homes I have no idea, and if you don’t deal with land you don’t solve the housing crisis.

The other things UKIP is concerned about are reviewing unaccountable housing associations (thanks, guys) and complaining about immigration. I know, I was surprised too.

The Green Party housing plan is really very similar to the Labour one, so I can’t be bothered to write about it. Here’s a screenshot:

Click to expand.

I’m not going to do the SNP or Plaid Cymru because housing is a devolved matter and I’ve banged on quite long enough.


Final thought

Most of the parties are promising to ban letting fees. I was under the impression that they'd already been banned, but no, the legislation is still working its way through: it is in the Tory manifesto, though.

Tomorrow: transport. I spoil you.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.