It’s perhaps cruel to recall John Prescott’s ten-year transport plan that faded into oblivion almost as soon as it was announced. But if the Blair government had too many plans and strategies, the coalition seems to have drawn the lesson that it’s better to have none at all – or at least as few as possible.
Nevertheless, it can’t completely wean itself off setting targets. As Shelter’s John Bibby points out for example, there is one to double the number of self-build homes constructed over the next decade. The only problem is that no one knows what the ‘decade’ is and therefore what the actual target might be. As he says, ministers seem to have chosen various figures, as high as 30,000 homes and as low as 14,000, so that their most recent versions of the target are in fact lower, not higher, than the output when the ambition to double the figures was first announced.
It’s curious, however, that the government can set a target for self-build but eschews one for non-self-build, i.e. for the rest of housing output. Or does it? There was certainly no new build target in its 2011 ‘housing strategy’ Laying the Foundations. Yet how can we judge whether the strategy is working unless it contains some measure of performance? Since then, the planning minister has said we should get back to building ‘220,000, 250,000 or 290,000 homes a year’. So now we have the opposite of a proper target – an aspiration so huge and so vague that it looks more like a pipedream.
The coalition could learn lessons from both the successful and unsuccessful use of targets by the previous government. OK, we all know that Gordon Brown was also pipe dreaming when he said he wanted homeownership to reach 75 per cent, and that almost immediately it started to move backwards. We also know that Labour set a fuel poverty target which it failed to meet, but it was at least a statutory yardstick that clearly revealed whether or not policy was working. At the same time, Labour set an ambitious target to halve the use of temporary accommodation for homeless people in England, and by the year it left office the target was met.
Perhaps Labour’s most successful target of all was the aim to meet the Decent Homes Standard in the social sector within a decade. It wasn’t quite achieved, but it is a case study in how government can set a realistic, long-term programme and maintain commitment to it. What did it involve? First, the definition of a standard and of a timeframe (with input from those in the sector lobbying for the programme). Second, an assessment of the resources required and a commitment to provide them. Third, delivery mechanisms, accompanied by enthusiastic promotion of the programme and getting buy-in from those on whom its success depended. And finally, proper measurement and monitoring, with adjustment to the programme as experience was gained.
Now I know that the decent homes programme was exceptional and Labour’s overall track record, as noted above, was mixed. But decent homes proved that government, at all levels, could deliver: in this case, a total investment of £37 billion across all social landlords over ten years.
Another area replete with targets is tackling climate change. Here both past and present governments are guilty of setting targets without proper plans for how they will be delivered. The main one is in Labour’s Climate Change Act 2008: it requires the UK to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80%, relative to 1990 levels, by 2050. The interim target is a 34% reduction by 2020. In addition, the government is obliged to set and meet five-year ‘carbon budgets’ as stepping stones.
The problem is that, while the mechanisms are in place, they don’t tie in with government budgeting and, as we know, the government’s energy efficiency programmes are now regarded as dispensable ‘green crap’. So although we have an Energy Efficiency Strategy, which has just been updated, it doesn’t spell out what is needed and how we are doing. For example, to meet the carbon targets we need to improve, every minute, one additional existing home to the high standards required. Needless to say we are not doing so, in part because the Green Deal has been such a flop. Does this failure get assessed in the updated strategy, with action to tackle the slow progress? No.
What lessons should Labour draw for its housing policies, from the experience of this and the previous governments? First, I think it has done the right thing in setting a 200,000 target for housing output. Yes, it’s less than what’s ideally required, but at the same time it’s realistic. Labour set a target of 240,000 annual completions in 2007, but the last time English housebuilding briefly topped 200,000 was in 1988. It has already established the Lyons Review, which should give it a firm basis for planning how to achieve the target. The commitment will need to be underwritten by the next Chancellor, and there’ll need to be a detailed implementation programme and an ongoing review mechanism to ensure that it is being met and can be adjusted as required.
If it takes the 200,000 target seriously, Labour could again give a lesson in how to construct and deliver a housing investment programme, as Nick Raynsford and subsequent ministers did with decent homes. There’s never been a more important time to learn from what Labour has achieved in the past.