Outside housing

Sir Keir Starmer has set out his plans for house building for Inside Housing magazine – a paper I used to write for. But I can’t help feeling that if I’d written such a confused and contradictory piece, I’d have been in real trouble with the editor.

After a routine complaint about the difficulties young people have in buying a home of their own, he sets out what the Labour government, now a racing certainty, would do.

“When planning rules mean you can’t build any houses, that is both a wrecker of dreams and a blockage on our national potential,” he writes.

Perhaps he’d care to specify where builders aren’t allowed to build any homes. That’s absurd given the 200,000+ homes built year after year and a million unbuilt consents.

“It’s only by reforming our planning regulations that we can unlock the economic potential of the country.”

So, at the heart of economic growth policy is smashing up the planning system and creating an unplanned mess? Not sure Sir Keir means that. Perhaps he should speak to Rachel Reeves.

“A Labour government would immediately update the National Policy Planning Framework.”

Business as usual then.

“We’ll strengthen planning obligations so new developments provide more affordable homes and introduce binding targets for planning authorities.”

Bit of a complex one this – three possibilities:-

  1. Smash up the planning system and the opportunity to increase obligations goes with it.
  2.  Strengthen the planning system with larger demands on commercial builders to increase, for example, the proportion of “affordable” homes, and that hits their profits. And they don’t get out of bed for less than a 20% rate-of-return so that means fewer homes get built.
  3. Alter the NPPF viability provisions so they can’t use that rate-of-return provision to appeal against consents and they just won’t bother building either.

Any of those options would certainly reduce production of affordable homes – and probably the overall number of market homes built.

“Introduce binding targets for planning authorities.”

As any planning officer can tell you, those targets Sir Keir has so much faith in are just requirements to allocate land in local plans for market builders to build as many low-density greenfield homes as suits their commercial interests. But it doesn’t make them build a single home. The big boys have plans to buy bigger yachts and they don’t give a monkey’s about Government targets.

“It’s obviously vital that local communities continue to shape house building in their area.”

What then? Stronger planning powers for councils? Don’t think that’s what he meant.

Still, perhaps Sir Keir has finally looked at the post-war building heritage he keeps citing and remembered that very high building levels were only achieved by building lots of council, or possibly housing association, homes?

“Labour won’t be afraid to use intervention powers to build the houses we need where necessary… we will prioritise social rented accommodation wherever appropriate.”

Good news if true; the real “housing crisis” certainly needs them. But has Sir Keir told his Treasury team about this huge change in policy? And, if so, why propose retaining right-to-buy, with only minor changes?

Or is it that when he says “Labour will build homes” or “we’ll make councils build homes”, he just means he thinks smashing up planning will encourage commercial house builders to build more homes. Really?

Perhaps he thinks commercial builders will be so delighted at freedom to build houses on England’s green belts – an institution, like the planning system itself, introduced by Labour – that the viability hurdles will be overcome and many tens of thousands of slightly-less-unaffordable homes will be built for recipients of his “Freedom to Buy” scheme?

“We’d take a more strategic approach to greenbelt land to build more homes in the right places.”

“Strategic” here, is presumably used in the sense of “unsustainable car-dependent sprawl”. Green belts, however, continue to do the heavy lifting in Labour’s market house building ambitions.

“In so many places, land currently registered as green belt would better be described as a ‘grey belt’ of disused carparks and dreary wasteland.”

This Old Grey Piffle Test does keep changing. It’s been “disused petrol stations”, “scrub”, “disused car washes” and “wasteland”, Now our tiny legacy of disused car parks can add to the tiny but contaminated legacy of disused petrol stations and nature-rich scrubland to provide the one-and-a-half-million homes Sir Keir wants to see.

Thousand-storey tower-blocks anyone? Green belts would certainly look “dreary” then.

Perhaps Sir Keir thinks attacking an, er, historic Labour legacy makes him look tough. Well, perhaps he should remember that quite a few English cities don’t have green belts on whose “dreary” bits to dump sprawl. Leicester, Southampton, Portsmouth, Norwich, Exeter, Peterborough, Ipswich, Chelmsford, Colchester, indeed anywhere on the south or east coasts apart from Bournemouth etc., etc..

Well, you get the picture, no ”grey belt” opportunities there. Maybe time to exercise some grey matter?

The rest of it doesn’t amount to much and I’m afraid if Sir Keir fancies a job as a writer on Inside Housing, he’ll need to work harder than this. It belongs on the electronic version of the old “spike”.

Perhaps it’s time Labour’s leadership stopped letting Tufton Street’s neoliberal think-tanks determine their policy on housing and planning.

Jon Reeds