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By Graham Norwood

Editor, Estate Agent Today

Graham Awards


Labour - The Housing Policies Coming Our Way Soon

You don’t have to be a mind-reader to believe there will be a large majority Labour government by the end of this year. This week’s local election results are exhibit A in support of my argument, and the Conservative in-fighting happening this weekend is exhibit B. 

It’s timely, therefore, to examine Labour housing policies - such as they are at the moment.

But before I do so, a quick word on the key politician involved. Matthew Pennycook, Labour’s shadow housing minister, has fought his corner well and is across his brief far better than any recent government housing minister; he looks a dead cert to take the housing brief, possibly at Cabinet level, if Labour wins. 


Now the policy. Party leader Sir Kier Starmer has introduced five Golden Rules for development on the hitherto un-touchable Green Belt. They are:

1.            Prioritising brownfield land within it for building;

2.            Opting for “poor-quality and ugly” areas - Starmer calls them the Grey Belt;

3.            Ensuring at least 50 per cent of homes built are classed as affordable;

4.            Boosting infrastructure such as schools and GP surgeries;

5.            Improving green spaces such as parks and woodlands.

These have been largely welcomed by property industry insiders and other housing market commentators who have recognised various eye-sore sites within the current Green Belt. So far even the government has not spoken out vehemently - no doubt because Liz Truss, still a darling of the Tory right wing, called in 2019 for one million homes to be built on the Green Belt.

But Grey/Green Belt aside, there is concern about a separate but related proposal by Labour - that homes built on released land should include at least 50% affordable housing and include plans to improve public services and local infrastructure.

This is highly desirable, but we’ve been here before on high affordable home targets which private developers ultimately feel they cannot meet.

History suggests that if this comes to pass, volume house builders will either default on the 50% target at a late stage in the planning process, effectively obliging councils to cave in for fear the scheme will not go ahead; or the developers will not even apply for consent, taking us back to square one in terms of supply shortage.

Unless, that is, that another of Labour’s policies comes to pass: the party plans to allow local authorities to buy land through compulsory purchase without needing to factor in the price premium demanded by developers and landowners hoping to secure planning permission. In other words, Labour will scrap ‘hope value’ within the CPO process.

Again it sounds a way of addressing one of the biggest affordability issues - land price - but don’t doubt that this will lead to legal challenges and policy disputes.

And even if all of these ambitious development plans succeed, how long will they take to get through Parliament, devolved assemblies and planning departments?

It’s unlikely that Labour’s 300,000 new homes a year target (assuming this remains the figure when the party draws up its manifesto) will be achievable before the end of a whole parliamentary term of five years.

A further key obstacle will be training and apprentices.

With Labour reluctant to move from the current Brexit labour movement restrictions, no matter how unpopular those restrictions may have become since the 2016 Referendum, there will be a need to build up the construction and energy workforces.

Labour proposes a ‘growth and skills levy’ - effectively redirecting some funds currently used to bolster small and medium-sized enterprises - but even if successful, this will be a multi-year exercise.

This - and many more nuanced issues too numerous to debate here - will make housebuilding on the scale necessary a long term goal rather than a day-one possibility after the election.

The other large housing issues for Labour concern renting and leaseholders.

As an opposition it backed the Renters Reform Bill in Parliament last week, even with the amendments it argued against. Party insiders say Labour actually wants this Bill to pass into law before an election, to avoid having to start from scratch on a similar-but-beefier version if it wins the election.

Labour says it will abolish Section 21 powers for landlords pretty much immediately it takes office, and it may well do so without waiting for any court process improvements. This would pacify noisy activists while recognising that, anyway, S21 is not used as much as the popular campaigns against it suggests.

However, if Labour gets its wish and the Renters Reform Bill passes before Election Day, it will enact other rental reforms at a much slower pace - and that won’t be a priority for a Labour government with a lot of other things on its plate.

Rent controls, it seems, are not on the agenda for Labour at national level. But it remains to be seen if its plans to devolve more powers to Metro Mayors also involves giving them the authority to control the private rental sector at a micro level.

In London Sadiq Khan is beside himself with excitement at the prospect of doing this, as we know: other Metro Mayors are more cautious, because of the high resources required to be as interventionist as Khan wants.

The leasehold situation is interesting because it gives an insight into Labour’s increasingly realistic view of what it can do, and how quickly, even if its gets a thumping majority at Westminster.

Having grabbed headlines in the recent past that it would “abolish the feudal leasehold system within 100 days of gaining office”, Labour quietly dropped this policy a month ago. It now says it remains “committed” to “ambitious legislation” and the timescale is “at the earliest opportunity.” 

This change has prompted predictable concern from leasehold campaigners - and this is something Labour will have to get used to if it gains power.

The party has indulged housing pressure groups, especially those like Generation Rent where some of the leading activists are one-time or wannabe Labour candidates. The party has built these activists’ expectations up so high that they will expect everything all at once should the party win power.

And, of course, they won’t get it.

The shouts of betrayal that this will trigger is the price the party may have to pay if it is as serious in office as it looks now, weeks or months ahead of an election.

And having prepared so well for power - and it’s much more prepared than the tired Conservatives - it will be a test to see if Labour holds its nerve and goes for long term housing solutions rather than simply pleasing those who shout loudest. 


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