Will the government achieve their plan to build 300,000 homes a year? Image © Brian Lawrence / Alamy Stock Photo

The market won’t fix the housing crisis—empowering local communities will

For too long the Conservatives have treated housing as a commodity. From Cornwall to Manchester, local people need affordable homes
November 2, 2021

Our country is facing a housing crisis, but the nature of the crisis looks different in different places. The issues in London of unaffordable rents, sky-high house prices and thousands stranded in temporary accommodation are not the same as those in northern towns, where too many are stuck in expensive, poor quality private rented accommodation—and although home ownership is more affordable, it remains out of reach for too many. In Cornwall, second homeowners and holiday lets have taken over whole towns, while in Manchester the building safety crisis has gripped the city, trapping thousands in unsellable homes.

The thread that ties these crises together is their common cause: the Conservative attitude that housing can be treated as a commodity, rather than the bedrock of stable lives and life chances. Years of deregulation, tax breaks for landlords and a huge loss of social housing have resulted in soaring homelessness and a ballooning private rented sector, while homeownership is down and the link between wages and affording a home has been broken.

Rather than “levelling up,” Michael Gove is set to continue this trend. He ditched the Conservatives’ failed attempt to reform the planning system, leaving the government with no way of reaching their target to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. More homes will need to be built on brownfield land, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this will require reform as well as better use of resources.

Reforming our arcane compensation rules, which haven’t been updated since the 1960s, would give local communities the power to develop a master plan, and buy up industrial and unused land at a fairer price. Failing to do this would allow millions of the Towns and Levelling Up funds to go on paying speculators over the odds for land.

Resources should be spread better across the country. As the new housing minister Neil O’Brien himself pointed out, more than three quarters of spending on the Housing Infrastructure Fund—designed to provide infrastructure to “unlock” new homes—has been in the greater south east.

“We cannot leave it to the same broken housing market to fix the problem”

New homes must be truly affordable, linked to local incomes rather than the overheated housing market. Where wages are lower, housing costs should also be lower. The government should start by preventing overseas investors buying up whole swathes of developments off-plan, and instead giving first-time buyers and local people first dibs on any new-build homes.

Gove has been put in charge of dealing with the building safety scandal, but so far all we’ve heard is more of the same failed approach that’s led to the problem. Just about anywhere that has built high-rise blocks in the last 15 years will be caught up in the crisis. Rather than leaving it to the same broken market that created these problems to fix them, the government should set up a building works agency to go block by block to assess, fix, fund and then certify all tall buildings—then pursue those responsible for costs. 

The same goes for the housing crisis as a whole: we cannot leave it to the same broken market to fix. The government is letting people down. Labour is the party with the bold, forward-thinking and empowering plans on housing and levelling up. As the party for working people, we will always champion tenants and homeowners. Too often the Conservatives choose to prioritise landlords and developers.