Housing for the Many – but brought to you by whom?

Labour’s Housing Green Paper sets out determined plans and sensible regulation but fails to explain how the package can be delivered.

The recently-published document outlined major proposals to replenish Britain’s affordable housing stock and introduce new regulations to reinforce safe design. The ideas are plentiful and many would have a major impact on the planning system if introduced on their own, let alone as part of a broader sweep of reform.

The detailed and radical proposals from Labour pose a threat to positive coverage of the Government’s own Social Housing Green Paper when it is published later this year. The Government’s capacity to manage these plans is likely to diminish with today’s changes – regardless of whether James Brokenshire makes a good Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government or not, it will take him some time to get to grips with the role. When he announces the Green Paper, it seems unlikely that he will have the depth of knowledge of the brief that Sajid Javid had gained in the role over the last two years.

Two of the most important targets set out in Labour’s Green Paper are that the Party proposes to build 1 million “affordable” homes in the next 10 years and to redefine affordable to mean a rent or mortgage which does not exceed one third of household income. The intention behind this is to extend the availability of affordable homes to low to middle-income workers.
The Paper also outlines stricter planning regulations, including the abolition of the viability clause, the introduction of a ‘presumption that there is no development without affordable housing’ and a new ‘duty to deliver affordable homes’ for Councils. The Party would also create an English Sovereign Land Trust with powers to compulsorily purchase land at a reduced price for affordable housing. Furthermore, it would prohibit ‘for profit’ housing associations and estate regeneration schemes on inhabited sites would have to be passed by local referenda of residents living on the effected estate.

And, breathe…. sound like a lot to you? The emphasis on forms of discounted housing including affordable and social housing is so strong that you could be forgiven for thinking the Green Paper is specifically about affordable housing delivery, however in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, it also sets out a strategy to improve design quality and safety standards.
The Party plans to create a Department for Housing and install a Chief Architect to oversee high quality and safe design. It would extend the Freedom of Information Act to Housing Associations and landlords, intended to shame landlords overcharging or providing poor accommodation and to allow competition for quality to thrive.

At first glance the document is dense and ambitious. The proposals are radical and Britain’s housing crisis undoubtedly needs radical solutions. However, the document does not acknowledge that resistance to housing in many parts of the country, particularly in the commuter belt and surrounding South East, is a problem that the planning system encounters at every level. Residents campaign against new development and Councils are reluctant to go against the wishes of their voters, as we have seen with unrealistically low housing targets in Local Plans. How, could Councils be forced to allocate development on a dramatically larger scale than they are currently accepting, against their wishes? How would policy enforcers select sites for compulsory purchase and development? These are crucial questions that the document fails to address.

Another weakness of the plans is their failure to tackle housing shortages in rural areas of the country. The proposals could benefit many of Britain’s cities outside the capital but there are no suggestions on how to tackle housing issues in rural areas dominated by tourism and beset with resistance to new development. Nor is there specific acknowledgement of this problem.
Despite issues with the proposals, the document poses a problem for the Government, whose Social Housing Green Paper is imminent. Though no indication has been given as to when we can expect the Government’s Paper, however it was announced in November of last year. While the Government recognises the housing crisis, its preference for market-driven supply is likely to inhibit it from making major investment in local authorities’ planning offices and from investing significant public money in a social housing drive.

It is the Government’s third review into the housing crisis in shortly over a year. In contrast Labour has proposed large sums of money for local government planning office’s, promises to invest in Homes England on a regional level, and proposes to reinstate the annual £4 billion national housing grant.

Although the Labour Party’s document has received little press coverage, it could be starkly contrasted to the Government’s own ideas when their Green Paper is released.

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