According to Boris Johnson’s “New Deal” speech in Dudley on 30th June, new legislation should be in place by September that will speed up the planning process, enabling builders to demolish vacant shops in town centres and elsewhere and build homes in their place without planning permission.
Johnson wants to eliminate “newt counting delays”. Any idea? Me neither. I’m guessing he may have been alluding to environmental regulations around protection of rare or endangered species of our flora and fauna. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of caring for our native amphibian population, his stated intention is to lavish £12 billion on new “affordable homes” wherever they can be built, bulldozing through standards and sensitivities in characteristic fashion.
Despite his attempt to strike a pose as a latter-day Franklin Delano Roosevelt there is no real comparison. The package amounts to c. 0.2% of GDP which is small compared to the sums involved in FDR’s response to the Great Depression. (See John Steinbeck’s powerful, heartrending novel, The Grapes of Wrath, depicting the lives of dirt poor Americans during those times.)
It’s not obvious, in any case, that Johnson’s shake-up of planning will work any better than recent attempts, for example the Localism Act (2011), the Growth and Infrastructure Act (2013) and the Housing and Planning Act (2015), all intended to remedy planning delays.
So what is the real situation in the UK today? The most recent comprehensive study into Britain’s housing needs has been compiled by the charity Shelter. The work used 16 commissioners drawn from across the political spectrum, evidence from 20 organisations, 16 public housing debates, a Big Conversation with 31,000 people and assistance from Capital Economics. Many of those living in rented accommodation think that people in power are indifferent to their concerns. The report finds that 3.1 million new social homes are needed. However, the current rate of construction is nowhere near providing this volume in any reasonable timeframe. Last year only 6,463 new social homes were delivered. Compare this to the period between the end of the Second World War and 1980, when an average of 126,000 social homes were built each year.
Shelter’s report says that we need a new regulator working across social and private renting to protect residents, and to set and properly enforce common standards. A new national tenants’ organisation or union is needed to give social housing residents a voice at a regional and national level.
The costings done by Capital Economics show that, if funded through the early years by borrowing, the Shelter programme will pay back in full over 39 years with a maximum net cost in the most expensive year of £5.4 billion. The report compares this with current annual expenditure of £21 billion on housing benefit and £62 billion on capital expenditure. Compared to the eye-watering sums the Treasury has borrowed to keep the economy afloat through the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, this looks affordable.
How do the two main parties’ policies stack up against this? Despite the claim that Johnson’s plan amounts to the most radical shake-up of the planning system since 1945, the Conservative manifesto contains nothing other than a vague reference to “respect for those in social housing”. The Conservatives would actually like to “rebalance the housing market towards more home ownership”, with a target of 300,000 new private homes built every year. This is not going to help those who can never contemplate home ownership but still need a decent home to live in. Indeed, the private housing market is already stuck at the bottom end, with the banks and building societies making it ever harder for first-time buyers to step onto the first rung of the ladder.
Labour’s manifesto is strong on the whole issue of social housing, and in line with Shelter’s ideas including plans for a dedicated Department for Housing and a range of measures including better provision for the homeless. Maybe that is not surprising but at least it shows a genuine concern and intention to act to resolve the housing crisis. Labour’s plan does indeed include construction of more than 1 million new social homes over a 10 year period, which goes some way towards the Shelter recommendation of 3.1 million over 20 years. It should be stressed that council housing is at the heart of this plan, while Labour would scrap the problematic “affordable” housing and right-to-buy schemes, along with giving councils more powers and funding, while giving tenants a stronger say in management.
You can’t help seeing a certain irony in this. Johnson stood up at his TV conferences and told the nation to stay at home, knowing full well that one of the most at risk demographics was precisely the less well off who depend on social housing and renting. He’s willing to let No. 11 raise the national debt beyond 100% GDP, but won’t countenance a change of heart about the least fortunate.
Can he fix it? Can he heckers.
This blog article is the personal view of a member of the Meon Valley constituency Labour Party (CLP) and may not represent the official policy or views of the Labour Party.