Yesterday saw the release of Labour’s Housing green paper, ‘Housing for the Many’, exactly a fortnight from the local elections due to take place in May. It’s tempting to see this as a reprise of Labour’s strategy in last year’s General Election of drip-feeding big headline policy announcements in the run-up to the poll – particularly given the gains it is hoping to make in London.
The headline position is their stated ambition to build 1m genuinely affordable homes over 10 years. This project is aimed at the “’just coping’ class in Britain today, who do the jobs we all rely on – IT workers, HGV drivers, joiners, warehouse managers, lab technicians, nurses, teaching assistants, call centre supervisors, shop staff”.
- Build one million homes over 10 years, the majority of which will be for social rent. For this ambitious target, Labour will explore local authority capacity to increase the pace of building.
- Redefine ‘affordable housing’ by scrapping the Conservatives’ so-called ‘Affordable Rent’ at up to 80% of market rents, and introduce a new definition linked to incomes across social rent, living rent and low-cost ownership.
- Institute a new ‘duty to deliver’ affordable housing for councils through a new English Sovereign Land Trust. The Trust will work with local authorities to enable proactive buying of land at a price closer to existing use value. As part of this Labour will consider changes to the rules governing the compensation paid to landowners.
- Create new financial arrangements including new borrowing freedoms and central funding to get councils and housing associations building at scale. Additionally, Labour will reset national housing grant investment to £4bn a year.
- Create a fully-fledged new Department for Housing which will be the driving force behind Labour’s New Deal on housing, alongside new OBR-style Office for Housing Delivery, with a specific remit to monitor Ministers.
- Implement a new ‘Decent Homes 2’ programme aimed to be achieved within two years. This will include considering mandatory minimum space standards for family and ensuring all high-rise council and housing association tower blocks have sprinkler systems fitted. In addition, it aims to fast-track the Homes (Fitness for Habitation) legislation, if it is not enacted prior to the next General Election.
- Introduce new reforms to increase transparency in the social housing sector by extending the Freedom of Information Act to housing associations and other social landlords and ensure the routine public release of fire safety reports. It will also consider extending the Freedom of Information Act to contractor-held information.
- Fast-track reforms to allow tenants to take council and housing association landlords to court if their homes aren’t safe through the Fitness for Habitation legislation.
What happens next?
- Labour is calling for the public’s answers to 15 questions it poses at the end of the Green Paper, to be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, ranging from whether readers agree with Labour’s new affordable housing definition to whether right to buy should be stopped so we can expect an update on and/or refinement of some of the key themes once the responses have been analysed.
- As Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, John Healey, points out, these proposals will only come about under the next Labour Government which, even if the party wins the next General Election, could be as late as May 2022. And a lot can happen in that time from a change in Labour leadership to the first “real” effects of Brexit taking place; in particular if the construction workforce numbers will be as affected as many critics are keen to point out.
- Meanwhile, housebuilders and developers can take comfort from the fact that they are already exploring if not doing what Labour is proposing: building more efficient homes, modular housebuilding, better fire protection, etc. because it makes economic and environmental sense to do so and is what the market, and homeowners and renters, are demanding. And wherever one stands on the political spectrum, developers almost unanimously agree that the planning system can be improved to build the homes this county needs, and that developers are keen to build.
- Unsurprisingly, Labour is likely to trumpet the commitments on housing made in the green paper loudly as May’s local elections approach. This may change the temperature of debates on housing and planning in coming weeks.