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:


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.


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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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.