The parties start to set out their general election stall

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

If this week was a preview of what the main parties will be offering on housing at the next general election then it is probably best to look away now.

Perhaps the best that can be said is that, just as Thursday’s local elections only offer clues as to the outcome of next year’s big event, so the policies announced in the run-up to them may only be a taster of what’s still to come.

But that is being optimistic: otherwise we got some standard tropes from Labour about

home ownership and signals that the Conservatives could be about to reach back into their collection of greatest misses.

In a series of interviews on Sunday, Keir Starmer set out his ambition for Labour to be ‘the party of home ownership’:

This standard appeal to aspirational voters begs some obvious questions about how and what else.

Restoring targets for housebuilding recently scrapped by the Conservatives would be a good start and would come alongside existing Labour policies of ‘first dibs’ for local first-time buyers and a block on overseas buyers.

But whether that will be enough to generate 300,000 new homes a year (the targets hadn’t done that before they were scrapped) and whether even that will make homes more affordable must both be doubtful.

The following day (coincidence?) The Times reported that Rishi Sunak is putting Help to Buy ‘back on the table’ as a key plank in the campaign for a potential Conservative fifth term.

Government sources told the paper that the move could come in the Autumn Statement or the Spring Budget. ‘We cannot go into the next election without an offer for first-time buyers,’ said a minister. ‘We all know that homeowners are more likely to vote Conservative and we cannot cede this ground to Labour.’

Again this is standard stuff but the thinking behind the policy seems muddled in the extreme if you believe those sources.

First comes a suggestion that Help to Buy could be extended to all homes, not just new ones, in response to accusations that developers used it to inflate the price of new flats.

That merely risks inflating the price of everything instead but it would also remove the key rationale for the scheme, that it incentivises the building of new homes.

Second comes the remarkable admission that: ‘If we can’t do anything on housing supply we are going to have to do something on affordability.’

That inability to ‘do anything on supply’ is not some accident but a direct result of the government’s surrender on planning. Rishi Sunak admitted in a Conservative Home interview last month that he had spent ‘a lot of time over the summer’ listening to Tory members and councillors and hearing that ‘what they didn’t want was a nationally imposed, top-down set of targets imposed telling them what to do’.

Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps may still believe that they abolished ‘top-down targets’ in 2010 but in the Conservative Party of 2023 they appear to mean anything that gives Tory councils a bottom-up responsibility for meeting housing need.

As for the ‘doing something’, Help to Buy may improve market accessibility by enabling more first-time buyers to get a mortgage but increasing the supply of credit without increasing the supply of homes would surely worsen affordability overall.

The government is still pledged to introduce a Renters Reform Bill that will include the abolition of Section 21 and legislation to ‘fundamentally reform’ the leasehold system for existing homes. We will find out in the King’s Speech in the Autumn whether it still has time to do either of these, let alone both.

Labour has already begun consultations on a series of documents published by its National Policy Forum that are much stronger on Tory failures than they are on what Labour would do about them.

The one on A future where families come first says that ‘Labour agrees that housing is a fundamental human right’ but it not clear whether this is just rhetoric or it means a legal right to adequate housing.

It goes on: ‘That’s why the next Labour government will be the first in a generation to restore social housing to the second largest form of tenure, bringing homes back into the ownership of local councils and communities.’

That is followed by the party’s ‘new home ownership target of 70 per cent’. However, meeting that target would inevitably mean a reduction in private renting, pushing social housing into second place without necessarily building very much of it.

More promising, if vague, is the declaration that ‘Labour will also set out an ambition to re-establish the link between genuinely affordable housing and average earnings, bringing affordable rents and the dream of home ownership closer for those locked out today.’ Shadow housing secretary Lisa Nandy made clear last week that this would include changing the definition of affordable rent.

The detail of Labour’s Five Missions for a Better Britain published so far includes next to nothing on housing, although the one on growing the economy mentions ‘helping first-time buyers onto the housing ladder and building more affordable homes by reforming planning rules and arcane compulsory purchase rules, with new protections for renters’.

However, background briefing given to Patrick Maguire of The Times suggests Labour will also promise to reintroduce strategic planning and to build hundreds of thousands of new council homes and that green belt reform and a new generation of new towns are on the agenda for the Labour conference in September. ‘Housing does not feature in Starmer’s five missions for government,’ he says. ‘But he knows it is the answer to all of them.’ 

Let’s hope so – and let’s hope the party is keeping its powder dry for closer to the election.

The two party leaders clashed directly over housing at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday as Keir Starmer clamed the ‘self-inflicted financial crisis’ last Autumn had left almost two million households facing higher mortgage costs and first-time buyers having to find £9,000 more for a deposit.

Rishi Sunak boasted that government schemes had led to the highest number of first-time buyers in 20 years, double what Labour managed.

The Labour leader then widened the attack to housebuilding: ‘His decision to scrap housing targets is killing the dream of home ownership for a generation. Why does he not admit he got it wrong and reverse it?’

The prime minister doubled down: ‘I promised to put local people in control of new housing, and I am proud that that is what I delivered within six weeks of becoming prime minister. The right hon. and learned gentleman wants to impose top-down housing targets, concrete over the green belt and ride roughshod over local communities.’

Starmer hit back that: ‘The only power the prime minister has given to local communities to not to build houses…. Why does he not stop the excuses, stop blaming everyone else, and just build some houses instead.’

And all Sunak had left was some whataboutery on Labour’s record in London and Wales. ‘As ever, Labour talks and the Conservatives deliver,’ he said.

It was good to see housing as the main event at PMQs even if few of the answers inspired much confidence.

Will it also be part of the main event at next year’s election?


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