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. 

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