(Evening Standard front page headline, 17/02/2014)
Eric Pickles’ disastrous performance as the temporary floods tsar – immediately seeking to blame everyone except the Government rather than getting on with the job – was predictable to anyone who has followed his constant bungling during four years in charge of housing.
Pickles’ calamitous oversight of housing policy, backed by an extraordinarily inept bunch of Ministers (in declining order of impact – Shapps, Prisk and Hopkins), should become a real area of weakness for the Tories over the coming months. It might be an area for Nick Clegg to address if he really does want to cosy up to Labour, because his CLG Ministers have noticeably failed to moderate or mitigate anything Pickles got up to – in particular his attempt to kill off social renting as a meaningful tenancy.
The Coalition has left a vacuum for the Labour Party to fill, which the industrious Jack Dromey was doing to good effect as shadow Minister. He has bequeathed a strong policy notebook to new shadow Emma Reynolds. Under Dromey, there was no question that good and detailed policy was being developed, the real doubt was whether housing policy had moved from niche interest to being genuinely central to the Party’s policy offer. Recent speeches by Ed Balls suggest that at long last the housing agenda, the welfare agenda and the economic agenda are being aligned.
Last night’s screaming Evening Standard headline ‘Miliband goes to war on London Housing’ has been reflected in commentary in several papers today (but without denting the broadcast media’s obsessive interest in flooding in the south of England – which is, apparently, much more newsworthy than previous flooding in the north.
This headline, and the Miliband article that gave rise to it, could be a key breakthrough in the local Election campaign. It coincides with a major housing drive being organised ‘on the ground’ by the London Labour Party and led by shadow London Minister Sadiq Khan.
Miliband’s article is perhaps the most comprehensive statement yet about where the Party has got to with its housing policy. And as the closing date for submissions to Labour’s Lyons Commission on housebuilding approaches, there is more detail and more policy to come.
The key ponts in his article were:
- The affordable housing shortage in Britain is ‘chronic’ and nowhere is this clearer than in London
- The shortage is becoming a critical economic constraint, with the CBI highlighting the lack of suitable housing as the biggest threat to London’s businesses
- ‘The shortage did not begin with this Government’ but it is getting much worse as the Government has failed on housebuilding. In London the mayor is building half his target – and his target is already inadequate.
- The average house price in London is now £600,000 and rents consume more than half the income of many low and middle income Londoners. There are 180,000 households on council waiting lists
- London is facing a growing ‘buy to leave’ crisis with many homes sold to foreign investors who do not then live in them
- Private renting is becoming harder for low income families and there are many unscrupulous lettings agents operating in the market.
The highlights of ‘what Labour will do’ are
- Show the same political commitment as the post war Labour Government – which got housing starts up to 200,000 homes a year from a zero start within a parliament
- Labour will set a target of 200,000 new homes being started a year by 2020 with the Lyons Commission doing the detailed work on the roadmap needed to achieve this
- A new generation of new towns and garden cities around the capital to ease the pressure on London
- A ‘right to grow’ for councils that are frustrated in their homebuilding efforts by neighbouring authorities
- A use it or lose it policy to strengthen the ability of councils to compulsorily purchase land with planning permission which has not been developed
- Controls on developers advertising properties for sale overseas first and new powers to levy double council tax on empty homes
- Radical plans to reform the private rented sector with a register of landlords and new regulation of letting agents to end rip-off fees.
Many of these points have been appraised by Red Brick in the past, with varying degrees of approval – for example on new housebuilding and a new generation of new towns. An overview might say: it’s a good start, but more is needed, especially on how to build more genuinely affordable homes and how to revive social renting. But giving housing real priority on the agenda and building the necessary political will to deliver is the first half the battle. Miliband is doing well on that score.