Time present, past & future: What the next Parliament could mean for housing

Ben Arrowsmith summarises the Conservatives’ and Labour’s key commitments, with a little help from T.S. Eliot & Sir Edward Coke…

In the opening of his Four Quartets, TS Eliot writes:

“Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past…”

Looking at the housing commitments in the manifestos of both the Labour and Conservative parties, whilst Mr Eliot was concerned with things less gritty than housing, one can see a good deal of what he wrote in the two parties’ manifesto pledges. The next Parliament (“time future”) will, in the case of either a Labour or Conservative government, legislate to bring back to the fore social housing (Labour) and continue/extend certain housing measures such as Right to Buy and Help to Buy (Conservative).

The Conservatives are very much business as usual (“time present”) with the continuation of Right to Buy (for social tenants) and Help to Buy by extending its period operation from 2021 to 2023. They will continue in their reforms in relation to leasehold, implementing the ban on the sale of new leasehold homes and restricting ground rents to a peppercorn. Rightly and, inevitably, the Conservatives stress the need for safe and secure buildings in light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy which occurred on their watch. One of the bastions of shire-Conservatives, the Green Belt, is to be protected and “enhanced”.

What comprises “enhanced” remains to be seen: feasibly, it could either be qualitative or quantitative. Another key tenet of the Conservatives’ manifesto is the introduction of something called “Infrastructure First”. This entails putting in infrastructure required for a development prior to people being able to move into their homes (to be funded, in part, with its £10 billion Single Housing Infrastructure Fund). Sense can be seen in relation to some infrastructure. However, in practice, it could appear odd that people are being denied moving into their homes because the secondary school hasn’t been completed. Like most things in life, the devil will be in the detail.

The Conservatives also adopt a softer/greener/more local side to elements in its manifesto. Pledges to make all homes environmentally friendly and future-proofed, Help to Buy for self-builders, more homes for local people and the curious measure whereby local communities will be asked for their own design standards for new developments. How the last of these will result in any coherent design standards across a larger area remains to be seen.

Also dent-making for developers will be the introduction of a use it or lose it tax for stalled housing developments.

Labour are pretty firmly in the “time past” camp, with its manifesto primarily concerned with the need to resurrect social housing and to put councils in the driving seat in relation to the provision of housing. This will be done through a new Department for Housing (an upgrade from the Ministry for Housing introduced by Theresa May in 2017). Labour also intends to set up a new English Sovereign Land Trust which will be used as the vehicle to buy land more cheaply for low-cost housing. By the end of the next Parliament, Labour pledges to be building 150,000 council and social homes per annum: 1977 was the last time that 100,000 council homes were built in a year (a case of time future improving on time past). As a sequitur, Labour will be looking to scrap the Right to Buy for social housing tenants and to give these tenants a stronger say in the management of their homes. Like the Conservatives, there are plans to right the tragic wrongs of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Also in Labour’s manifesto is the plan to change Help to Buy so that it becomes focussed on first time buyers on “ordinary incomes” (presumably meaning related to local market employment conditions). This may well cause a dent in the profits of developers who have done very well out of the Help to Buy scheme. Also dent-making for developers will be the introduction of a use it or lose it tax for stalled housing developments.

Labour also have similar pledges to the Conservatives in relation to the local homes for local people, added protection for private tenants and environmentally friendly homes (going so far as wanting to implement a “tough new zero-carbon homes standard for all new homes”).

The problem is quite obvious: in order to build more homes, more planners of a good calibre will be needed

What do the above summarised plans mean for the planning departments in local authorities? The problem is quite obvious: in order to build more homes, more planners of a good calibre will be needed. Councils’ funding is severely straitened and, therefore, they bring in inexperienced graduates to deal with what can be very complex planning issues. Whilst training up these graduates is a laudable aim, what the incoming government of whatever hue needs to be first is to sort out an increase in funding for local government planning departments: with the paucity on offer, Councils cannot be expected to attract the experience required to deal with both parties’ stated increase in the number of homes to be delivered.

In summary (with a few exceptions), both the Conservatives’ and Labour’s commitments to housing can be summed up in Sir Edward Coke’s dictum from 1628: “For a man’s home is his castle…” (Conservative)…and each man’s home his safest refuge” (Labour). Time future contained in time past.

Further Reading
Election 2019 head-to-head: Comparing manifesto pledges on housing & tax November 2019