In our last two blogposts we have pointed out the vital importance of securing a large amount of investment if Labour is to achieve its target of 200,000 homes a year by 2020 and expressed our concern at the implications of Ed Balls strict line on ‘no more borrowing’ under the next Labour Government. We were looking to Ed Miliband’s speech today (click link for full text) to raise our hopes.
In a generally excellent speech, with its huge commitment to restoring the National Health Service, housing was given high priority as one of Miliband’s ‘six goals’ within Labour’s ten year plan. Here’s what he said in the key passage about housing:
And a plan for your family doesn’t just depend on wages, jobs and education. What is it that provides us with security in life and faith in the future? The love of the people we care most about. Decent work properly rewarded. And the confidence and security that comes from having our own home.
So many people in Britain today don’t have that. That most British of dreams, the dream of home ownership, has faded for so many. Under this government, Britain has the lowest level of house-building since the 1920s.
So our fifth national goal is that for the first time in fifty years we will make sure this country is building as many houses as we need. By 2025, doubling the number of first time buyers who get on the housing ladder each year. Again, we will need a national effort to achieve. We will stop the large developers sitting on land and we will back the thousands of small developers and construction companies with access to new loans. There will be new towns, garden cities and suburbs with a half a million new homes. And housing will be a top priority in our capital investment programme. Because we need to start Britain building again.
The phrase ‘building as many houses as we need’ is striking. The current commitment to build 200,000 a year by 2020 is seen by many to be stretching given the well-rehearsed problems with housing delivery. As all national estimates of need are miles beyond 200,000, ‘as many as we need’ is an extraordinary ambition if it is to be taken literally. It implies that beyond 2020 we must have policies in place to increase the number up towards 300,000 and perhaps even beyond that.
The exclusive emphasis on home ownership is disappointing – not because increasing the number of homes for first time buyers is to be sniffed at, but because it fails to acknowledge the importance of providing homes at genuinely affordable rents for those who will never be able to afford to buy. Home ownership has now been declining for a decade and it is almost as if no-one has noticed that a major structural change has taken place. Simply on political grounds the votes of people who want and need to rent count the same as those who are likely to be able to buy. And genuinely affordable rented homes will be just as important in creating balanced communities in garden cities and new towns as new homes for owner occupation.
The only phrase that covers the social housing programme – ‘And housing will be a top priority in our capital investment programme’ – re-states the tougher fiscal stance set out by Ed Balls yesterday. No promise involving extra borrowing, so no promise on the borrowing cap that limits how many new homes councils can provide. It is hard to translate the phrase ‘a top priority’ into hard cash and real bricks and mortar.
It will be hard for Emma Reynolds to put a positive spin on the Eds’ speeches but she has the job of making this appear coherent to housing world.
From my point of view, I can only say it is disappointing. I was looking for a commitment on the social housing programme and especially on the council housing cap. I was looking for an ambition that a decent proportion of the 200,000 target would be genuinely affordable homes and not just a few more acres of Barrett and Wimpy homes (welcome though they are as part of a balanced housing programme). I was looking for a strong statement to move ‘from benefits to bricks’ through increased investment.
I keep hearing noises that Sir Michael Lyons and his team have written a strong report that will make a real difference to housing delivery. But if he is meeting his terms of reference he is most likely to be recommending raising the cap and using public borrowing to invest as well as making proposals for the private sector. And the level of grant remains critical to getting rents right and beginning the long task of rebalancing away from a dependence on benefit. I think Lyons’ task has been made harder by the new fiscal stance and (I speculate) this might be a reason for delay.
So the housing baton passes to Lyons and I just hope he can impersonate Usain Bolt in the last leg of the relay.