Labour’s choice of housing as a topic for their Opposition Day debate in Parliament confirms that the housing problem will become an election issue for the first time since 1979, when the policy of selling council houses helped to put Mrs Thatcher into No 10.
Labour’s promise to tackle the housing crisis was a major factor in its victory in the 1945 election, and Conservative and Labour parties in the 1950s and 1960s tried to outbid each other in promising to expand housebuilding. Harold Macmillan’s success, as the Conservative Minister of Housing, in overseeing 350,000 completions in 1954, two-thirds of them in the public sector, helped him up the ladder to becoming Prime Minister.
Housing disappeared as an election issue in the 1980s, as education and health became the two services that voters were most concerned with, but, over the last two decades two problems have gradually developed:-
- A crisis of affordability as house prices have risen faster than wages, especially in the south, pushing people, including families and middle aged people, into the private rented sector
- A failure of housebuilding to catch up with demand. Even without a population increase, there are more households because people are living longer and more people live on their own or in single parent households.
The Parliamentary Debate
The debate was a short one because Labour wanted to fit in a second debate on fixed terminal betting machines in the high street but sufficient for both sides to lay down markers for future electioneering.
The Labour Party
Hilary Benn, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in his usual calm and analytical style, set out what Labour sees as the failure of the Coalition - lowest number of new houses built since the 1920s, rents rising, five million people on waiting lists for social housing. Labour’s plans are still being formulated but include tackling land supply, new garden cities and allowing for the ‘right to grow’ beyond their boundaries for towns such as Luton and Stevenage. Labour has made some definite commitments on abolishing the ‘bedroom tax’, setting a ‘mansion tax’ and allowing councils to raise council tax for empty properties. Emma Reynolds, summing up for Labour made rising rents and affordability part of the ’cost of living crisis’ argument that will be central to Labour’s campaigning.
Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State was his usual combative and slightly over the top self – would the logic of Labour’s land supply proposals lead to ‘a North Korean solution’ of ‘arresting and executing’ developers for failing to bring land forward?
His message was clear though. The Chancellor’s economic policies had created an upturn that was feeding through into the housing market with the highest number of first time buyers since the crash. Labour’s policies would only lead to taxes on housing development, red tape and the confiscation of land. Conservatives were able to point to the Labour run Welsh Government where extra requirements for housing development have been introduced.
The Government has started a series of initiatives, especially Help to Buy, and Conservative backbenchers were able to point to constituents who had been able to purchase houses. The Affordable Homes Programme, the New Homes Bonus or the Get Britain Building Programme could all be lauded by the Government. They all have their problems though and Labour MPs could quote Vince Cable as warning that Help to Buy, by increasing demand but not supply, might lead to a housing bubble. Labour backbenchers had to admit though that, although the last Labour Government had a good record in bringing existing social housing up to standard, it had not built enough homes and the idea of new eco towns had barely got off the starting block by 2010.
Little Meeting of Minds
There was little meeting of minds, or even agreement on the figures, between Government and Opposition and so this looks like to be a key area that will divide the two parties in the run up to the general election.
Milliband has commissioned Sir Michael Lyons to sort out ideas on bringing land forward for development and on garden cities and the Labour Housing Group has put together detailed proposals on improving the situation for private rented tenants – one of the groups where Labour has lost the most support since 1997 – so the party will be bringing housing to the fore again later this year.
The Liberal Democrats views got rather lost between the two main parties on Wednesday, with Labour having stolen their ‘mansion tax’ idea, though Sir Andrew Stunell was able point to the policy of replacing further sales of council housing with new affordable homes on a one-for-one basis, which they had forced on their Coalition partners.
The UK Independence Party weren’t there of course but have also recognised the housing issue with a strategy for brownfield sites, ending the bedroom tax, a register of homeless people and priority in social housing to second generation locals. In remains to be seen whether they will get a look in on the issue as the election campaign hots up.