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Two cheers for Labour’s housing policy

Jeremy Corbyn holds a copy of the party's manifesto. Credit: Getty

November 21, 2019 - 4:26pm

It pains me to say this, but there’s a lot to welcome in Labour’s housing policy.

One particular highlight in the new manifesto is the setting up of a dedicated Department for Housing (and, presumably, planning). The scale of the housing crisis is such that it needs the exclusive attention of a full team of ministers. A commitment to leave them in post long enough to make a difference would have been nice, but you can’t have everything.

Also welcome is the proposal for an “English Sovereign Land Trust, with powers to buy land more cheaply for low-cost housing”. There’s not much detail, however, as to how land can be obtained at low cost. At the very least, it would require getting rid of the ‘hope value’ principle in law, which effectively entitles landowners to the windfall that comes from getting planning permission. It is the planning system that creates this added value not the landowner.

The most eye-catching pledge is to build homes for social rent at a rate of 150,000 a year — two-thirds of which would be council homes. Why councils are favoured over housing associations isn’t explained.

Furthermore, while we certainly need more social housing, there’s no hint that it might provide a stepping stone to home ownership. Indeed, the Right to Buy would be abolished.

There is a promise to “build more low-cost homes reserved for first-time buyers in every area”. But in contrast to the council homes policy, no numbers are attached — suggesting that homeownership is a lower political priority.

There’s some good stuff, however, on strengthening the rights of leaseholders and imposing a levy on overseas companies snapping up British homes as investments. This should be extended to individual speculators and cover land not just buildings, but the underlying principle is right – the purpose of housing development is to provide homes for people who live and work here, not an investment asset for people who don’t.

As for the private rented sector, Labour want to increase affordability by capping rents. Well, good luck with that one!

Elsewhere in the manifesto, there’s a promise to “review the option of a land value tax on commercial landlords”. That’s hardly conclusive, but a step in the right direction.

What’s not so welcome is the boilerplate pledge to “make brownfield sites the priority for development and protect the green belt”. Oh dear. We are not going to solve the housing crisis without new thinking on spatial policy. Between the extremes of abolishing the green belt and freezing it in time forever, we need to give successful small cities such as Oxford and Cambridge space to grow.

Another black mark is that the words ‘beauty’ and ‘beautiful’ are absent from the entire manifesto. There is a reference to streets that provide “freedom for physically active outdoor play”, but that’s about it on the good design front. There should have been a lot more. To have a hope of persuading communities to accept so much new development, it is essential that it always makes places better. There’s nothing trivial about the beauty agenda — it is the key to overcoming Nimbyism.

Still, with those gaps noted, the manifesto has a lot of the right ideas. It is supremely frustrating that measures that could have been implemented by Tories years ago have now been proposed by Labour.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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