No housing surprises were expected in the Labour Party Manifesto, launched this morning by Ed Miliband. And no surprises was what we got.
All of the housing policies have been previously announced and widely trailed. There is a strong reliance on the conclusions of the Lyons Report on housebuilding, which set out a comprehensive and detailed agenda for achieving the Party’s target of 200,000 homes a year by 2020. And there is a strong commitment to reform in the private rented sector, with 3 year tenancies as standard, the capping of rent increases during a tenancy, landlord registration, and strict controls over letting agents.
It is only the fact that these key policies have become so familiar that prevents them from being seen as political big ticket items. Everyone knows that 200,000 new homes each year (as a start), getting close to a doubling of current output, is a stretching target. Just saying ‘make it 300K’ doesn’t improve the policy, it just makes the likely disappointment all the greater.
Some will describe the private rented sector package as not being sufficiently radical because it is not ‘real rent control’, but it is close to the German system which has been a relative success over many years, and is a bigger reform than it is given credit for. It could be that the strict regulation of agents will make most difference – benefiting both tenants and landlords. But it is quite wrong of ‘Generation Rent’ and others to say there is no difference between the Parties on private renting. The Tories stand for further deregulation and believe that an even freer market is needed to encourage more landlords to invest.
In this age when symbolic policies are so important, one short stark message is of vital importance in this Manifesto:
Half a million families have been hit by the Bedroom Tax, and two thirds of those affected are disabled, or have a disabled family member.
It is cruel, and we will abolish it.
Labour’s Manifesto also includes a specific commitment to reversing the upward trend of homelessness which is very welcome.
So is it what I want to see? Of course not, but then again that has been true of every Manifesto I’ve ever read. It is not explicit on capital funding for housing – the central determinant in getting a large proportion of the 200K new build as genuinely affordable homes. There is a generalised commitment to giving housing top priority in Government capital spending, but a lot more water will flow under the bridge before we know what that means. My aim would be an early return to 2010 housing grant levels, which would mean it is in the same ball park as the cost of the ‘Help to Buy ISA’ so casually announced by Osborne in the budget. Going back to a £2 billion plus housing budget is not a big deal in Government spending terms, but would transform our housing prospects. Despite all the emphasis on first time buyers, it is the performance and output of the social housing sector that will determine whether 200K is achieved or not. And to deliver its mission of providing decent homes at genuinely affordable rents, the social housing sector needs more grant.
One specific disappointment is that the large amount of behind-the-scenes work that Labour did on a ‘benefits to bricks’ policy – subsidising housing construction not housing rents through housing benefits – has not come to full fruition in the Manifesto. There are nods in this direction – a proportion of housing benefit savings due to councils negotiating private rents down will be kept locally for re-investment – and the underlying principle is asserted that ‘Government spends far too much money dealing with the symptoms of problems, instead of investing smaller amounts in dealing with their causes.’
Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie’s famous ‘zero based budget reviews’ seem to have passed over housing too quickly. It is not just ‘benefits to bricks’ – the Tories have committed vast sums to subsiding housing demand, which can only in the long term lead to house price increases. Diverting some of these additional demand subsidies into social housing grant would give us a programme to be proud of.
It will surprise no-one if I say that a Labour Government is essential to set a new direction of travel in housing. The last five years of Tory dogma and LibDem complicity have been unambiguously bad for housing. There have been no silver linings. A Labour victory will not mean the problems are solved, but it will mean that housing campaigns will have more focus and they will be aimed at people who will listen and at least half understand what is being said.