Quote of the Day:

“In politics, absurdity is not a handicap”
                        Napoleon Bonaparte

So it seems housing has finally made its way up the political agenda. In both the blue corner and the red corner, each contender is trying to claim that they are indeed the greatest. Perhaps we should have a pre-fight weigh in session with both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn and see who wins the blinking competition as a means of deciding who is fit to govern. From the conference performance of both, I would personally suggest neither.

Now that the pantomime of the conference speeches is over – and what a pantomime it has been – we have prepared a nice little compare and contrast analysis of what housing policy may look like under either a future Labour government or a future (existing) Tory government. Which may be sooner rather than later; after all, does anyone really think that Mrs Maybe can limp on for a whole term? At the moment she looks like she could be toppled, or just topple over, at any point. Adore or abhor her, it is like watching a particularly bad reality tv programme as she seems to be suffering death by 1,000 cuts – not to mention the massive great scythe which Boris Johnson is swinging, in a grim reaper-esque fashion, above her head.

Conference for both Labour and the Tories this year was all about demonstrating they are fit to govern. At Labour, BBC journalists had to be provided with bodyguards to prevent them from being attacked by rabid members of the Corbyn Cult and there were almost physical fights to be able to purchase a Jeremy Corbyn mug for just under a tenner (for the many, not the few). Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has been on a drive (I would say charm offensive, but that just doesn’t apply to John McDonnell) to try to show business that he is not as terrifying as they think he is – I mean, why on earth would business of all shapes and sizes have anything to fear from a man who is a self-proclaimed Marxist Communist who fundamentally believes that capitalism as a system needs to be completely dismantled. I suspect it will take more than a few reassuring chats about how important business is to seriously convince anyone.

At Tory, there was more of a pall over the place as champagne is still banned and no one is really allowed to look as if they are having fun. Except of course for Boris, who takes great pleasure in telling everyone the Cabinet is singing in harmony, whilst he squawks like a Jackdaw, just waiting for the mother bird to leave the nest so he can nick all of the nice shiny eggs. Whilst the sight of Theresa May being handed a P45 was comedy genius, it also raises serious questions about the security and attention to detail in the top Conservative ranks and therefore questions about their general competence.

Anyway, back to that housing policy…

Labour

Corbyn opened his housing section of his speech with reference to Grenfell, holding that up as emblematic of the failure of the housing system overall and setting the tone for how his speech and policy would go. Under Labour we will have:

  • A policy to ensure that every home is fit for human habitation – although no detail on how that is managed and policed.
  • Introduce rent controls that would allow cities potentially to go as far as controlling prices, not just the rate of increases. Presumably this could work where you have a Mayoral system but may be more problematic in other local authorities. Both buy to let landlords and PRS developers will need to watch this avidly – anything seen detrimental to private interest will simply result in a massive reduction in supply as properties are sold off to avoid the restrictions.
  • Labour will stop private developers from benefiting from the regeneration of housing estates by excluding existing residents and ensuring that regeneration schemes have to benefit existing communities. In practice this will mean that existing tenants must be given a home on the same site and have the opportunity to take part in a ballot on whether the project should go ahead. This is an interesting policy on the basis that phasing and development strategies can make it logistically very difficult for people to be given a smooth transition from one home to the next. However, what it is likely to mean in practice is that affordable housing needs to be replaced at least like for like and any tenants who have relocated will then have their allocated property given to someone else on the housing list. The ability for tenants to block development will need to be set out in more detail in terms of how much weight a ballot will carry and what other options there may be – if any. Ultimately, estate regeneration will probably be much less attractive, unless densities can be significantly increased.
  • Introduce a compulsory purchase policy for undeveloped land – Corbyn said a Labour Government would stop developers “land-banking”. This is similar to Ed Miliband’s ‘use it or lose it’ policy and pretty much to everyone else across government who seems to think that land should be developed within 4 weeks of receiving planning.

Labour are also shortly to launch a review of social housing policy – its building, planning, regulation and management, listening to tenants across the country – which will lead to them bringing forward a radical programme of action to be presented at Conference next year. It would be highly surprising if this did not include a state funded building programme and some form of greenbelt review.

It may be safe to assume that Labour are looking at Conference 2018 as their pre-election conference so anything they do now will effectively be manifesto ready by the end of 2018.

Conservative

Theresa May has apparently decided that housing is now her key delivery area. Sajid Javid will be delighted to have such scrutiny from No.10 – although the appointment of a totally inexperienced and seemingly invisible MP as Housing Minister now makes much more sense. Under the Conservatives we will have:

  • A new generation of Council houses funded by the government with an additional £2bn which will be specifically for social rent and not just affordable rent. Obviously there are a lot of questions around this – Councils may be given the funding but where do they procure the skills from to plan and build housing when there is already a massive skills shortage and the private sector can pay better? It is also unlikely to address the massive shortfall in rental stock which has occurred as a result of the Right to Buy policy. However, regardless of the lack of detail, this is a positive step in terms of actually recognising that, to solve the housing crisis, the silver bullet which is required is state funding and intervention.
  • Provision of public sector land to be used for speeded up delivery of housing. Where public sector land is provided there are likely to be criteria regarding the pace of delivery and tenure of housing attached as conditions to any disposal.
  • Housebuilders are to do their duty by building the housing which is needed (a sentence which is bound to delight the industry as, not only does it continue to imply ongoing and deliberate excessive land banking but also that housebuilders are morally obliged, like no other private sector industry is, to flood the market with a product which would effectively then reduce margins and profitability).
  • Help over 130,000 more families with the deposit they need to buy their own home by investing a further £10 billion in Help to Buy. And thus, perpetuating the bubble and diverting funding away from where the real need actually is.
  • Introduce measures to give the increasing number of families who rent from a private landlord more security – and effective redress if their landlord is not maintaining their property. This was borrowed very heavily from the song book of Jeremy Corbyn and targets not just families but crucially young people, with whom the Conservatives constantly fail to connect on any broad level (their recent attempt to establish a Momentum-style organization failed spectacularly when it emerged that the membership fee was around £500 per year).

Greenbelt still seems sacrosanct – although even the Government can’t seriously think that is the case given that their recent calculations on housing need massively increased the housing need of many of those areas which are severely restricted by greenbelt. However, it would never be a political win to state this quite so blatantly and there are a lot of greenbelt MPs who will be feeling incredibly nervous about their prospects at the next General Election – whenever that should be.

The Housing Bill will contain more detail when it is published – when or when will that be? But it would be nice to think that perhaps many of the schemes currently subject to call-in or appeal may be viewed with a slightly less subjective and slightly more strategic eye than previously. Although, in reality, they still need to win seats at the next election and local MPs lobbying against developments continue to have a disproportionately loud voice in DCLG.

So, in summary, Labour are more radical but the Tories are being as radical as they get when it comes to housebuilding. They are concerned that Labour are stealing a march on them when it comes to social policies and are pretty much trying to take their territory before they can – although obviously without going so far that it scares people.

Expect much more info from both parties in the coming months – hopefully before the next General Election anyway…