A political consensus on house-building?

Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems set out their policies for tackling the housing crisis.

We are at a unique moment of political consensus in the United Kingdom. When it comes to housing, all the parties agree. The solution, to borrow from the New Statesman’s Jonn Elledge, is to ‘build more bloody houses’.

With prices, particularly in the south-east, surging beyond the reach of average earners, we clearly need more housing stock and we need it fast. All the political parties agree there is a housing crisis and that they need to help solve it, so how will they go about it?

A rumour that had been circulating for a while was recently confirmed by the Sunday Times – that the Tories plan to revive the Thatcherite flagship policy of Right to Buy. Under the revival, Housing Associations will be encouraged to allow their tenants to buy their homes at a discount price in the same way council tenants were in the 1980’s. The proceeds will be used to build more affordable housing.

There are shortcomings to this proposal, not least that Housing Associations are independent of the state, so it will be difficult to compel them to deliver this discount. More importantly, it focuses on the demand side of the housing issue, when the big issue is supply. How long will it take for the proceeds of these sales to build new homes, and more importantly, where will they be built and by whom?

Turning to Labour: despite earlier housing-focused rhetoric, the Labour election ‘pledge card’ doesn’t mention housing at all. This means that the most substantial Labour statement on housing policy remains the Lyons Review, launched in October last year.

The Lyons review recommended a number of measures, from a speeded-up planning process to new government powers to force local councils to produce and follow house-building plans. These were enthusiastically welcomed by the property sector, but there has been little meat put on the bones since.

One of the Labour Party’s leading thinkers, Lord Adonis, has recently suggested that the way forward is to tear down existing housing estates and rebuild them at higher densities. Various London authorities, from Hackney to Southwark and Hammersmith and Fulham, have explored this option with mixed reactions from the local community. It will require strong political will to succeed in the face of tenants’ opposition to seeing their houses torn down.

The Lib Dems’ headline housing policy is a ‘rent to own’ model. The idea is that the state subsidises rental levels to market rates, and then would-be buyers pay monthly instalments without having to raise a deposit to buy their own home. Again, this doesn’t really tackle the supply side of things, but the party has made noises about ‘garden cities’ being their preferred vehicle to drive up house building.

The closer we have come to the election, the less keen all the political parties have been to talk about how they will build more houses. Building homes can be a messy business – most large-scale developments have a tendency to be unpopular at a local level. For any of the parties to hit the number of new homes they all claim to want to build, some unpopular decisions will have to be made. And, despite their desire to ‘build more bloody houses’, none of the parties want to be seen to be driving through unpopular developments. So despite the apparent political consensus, we may be talking about this for some time yet.