The housing policies announced this conference season

‘Tis the season!… well, conference season that is.

Over the last few weeks, politicians, pundits, our Built Environment team and the public, have gathered to discover what goodies our political parties promise to leave under the electoral tree. High on the wish list is a remedy to this country’s housing crisis.

And it is a crisis.

Certainly the nation’s voters think so. A recent ‘Housing the Nation’ report by the Home Builders Federation (or HBF), published in September, found 78% of respondents agree there is a housing crisis in the UK. 40% of them agreed with the statement ‘Housing will be an important factor in determining who I vote for at the next General Election’. But only 55% of them believe housing is a priority for politicians.

These stats are almost mirrored by research conducted by Ipsos last year. Pointing to not just a crisis but a protracted one – which the voting public aren’t too chuffed about.

So, heading into conference season, there was a lot for our political parties to answer for. So what did they say?

Conservatives say “Housing who?”

In the words of Ronan Keating: ‘You say it best, when you say nothing at all.’ (the video in case you want to relive that naughties lynchpin).

Well we must assume Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove took this as sage wisdom. Because they said very little of Housing at the Conservative Party Conference.

The housing press responded with surprise, with Inside Housing commenting: “housing was – quite literally – a fringe issue”. And Building adding: “Housing was a major talking point, though not among the leadership.”

In their defence, the party did announce a ‘Long-term plan for housing’ in July. Though the omission of the issue from Sunak’s key speech must be taken as an indicator of their priorities heading into a 2024 election.

The key Conservative Housing announcements:

  • The regeneration of a further 3 English cities, committing to transformational change in Cambridge, central London and central Leeds. Building on work already underway to regenerate 20 towns and cities.
  • £800 million allocated from the £1.5 billion Brownfield, Infrastructure and Land fund to unlock up to 56,000 new homes on brownfield sites. Taking an infrastructure first approach to build up cities.
  • Funding Homes England with £550 million, which with income generated will mean a total investment of £1 billion.
  • Launching a consultation on new Permitted Development Rights, to provide more certainty over some types of development. And how design codes might apply to certain rights to protect local character and give developers greater confidence.
  • Launching a new £24 million Planning Skills Delivery Fund to clear planning backlogs and get the right skills in place.
  • Establishing a new “super-squad” team of leading planners. Working across the planning system to unblock major housing developments, underpinned by £13.5 million in funding. 
  • Supporting councils to deliver high quality up to date local plans. Launching a consultation to seek views on our proposals to simplify the system of developing a new local plan.

Labour move to fill the vacuum

Where the Conservatives made their strongest case for housing outside of the conference season, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party have taken the opposite approach. Nailing their colours to the mast with fervour (and glitter!) as they made housing a flagship issue across their leadership speeches.

The Conservatives have long deemed themselves the party of housebuilding – and The Labour Party have consistently faced the question ‘Why Labour?’ over the last decade. At their conference they sought to reclaim the housebuilding crown and answer that question in one swift action. Announcing a suite of policies that said were finally ‘substantial enough to be considered a governing agenda’.

Housing Today noted that the housing industry had broadly welcomed Starmer’s housebuilding plan. So what is all the fuss about?

The key Labour Housing announcements:

  • A housebuilding target of 1.5 million new homes over the next five years.
  • Writing to all chief planning officers, upon entering office, to instruct local planning authorities to approve planning applications in areas which do not have a local plan and fail other key policy tests, such as the housing delivery test.
  • Building on the “grey belt” – areas of disused land within the green belt that include wasteland and unused car parks.
  • A ‘planning passport’ for urban brownfield development; with a fast track approval and delivery of high-density housing on urban brownfield sites.
  • First dibs for first time buyers; supporting younger people the first chance at homes in new housing developments with a government-backed mortgage guarantee scheme.
  • A package of devolution to Mayors, with stronger powers over planning and control over housing investment.

Liberal Democrats state their case – and could be the differentiator

With all eyes on Sunak and Starmer, Ed Davey’s Lib Dems could yet be a disruptor in the elections next year. Particularly after their gains in local elections this year.

The party were first up with their conference at the very start of October, but face a bit of an internal battle on housing. That’s because many of the local gains made in elections came on the back of promises to defend towns, villages and cities from excessive development.

In his announcements, Ed Davey, has put the focus on social housing and improving energy performance. Alongside expanded Neighbourhood Plans and new garden cities.

The key Liberal Democrat Housing announcements:

  • national target for building social homes, aiming for 150,000 a year by the end of the next parliament. With new powers for local authorities to build their own social and affordable housing.
  • A ten year emergency programme to insulate Britain’s homes. As well as new standards to ensure new homes are warm, cheap to heat and produce minimal emissions
  • Ensuring developers build appropriate infrastructure needed for new housing developments.
  • Abolishing leaseholds for residential properties and effectively ending ground rents by cutting them to a nominal fee. 
  • Introducing a fair deal for renters. Including longer default tenancies, rent smoothing over the course of a tenancy and banning no fault evictions.
  • New powers for local authorities to control and manage second homes and holiday lets.
  • Expansion of Neighbourhood Planning and more democratic engagement in Local Plans. Reforming the Land Compensation Act to ensure land can be bought at a fair price and extending the Liberal Democrat proposed Commercial Landowner Levy to land with planning permission, but not yet built on. 
  • Building 10 new garden cities to help tackle the housing crisis.

To provide a snapshot summary:

Conservatives: Focus on regenerating cities, unlocking brownfield sites, and streamlining planning processes as part of their housing strategy.

Labour: A housebuilding target of 1.5 million new homes over the next five years.

Liberal Democrats: A national target for building social homes, aiming for 150,000 a year by the end of the next parliament, and a fairer deal for renters.

As we look back over the conference season, a line appears to have been crossed that means change has to happen. Political, public and industry consensus is aligned on the fact that the system is broken somehow.

But just how to fix it – and who will deliver that fix – is the big question that looks set to loom over an election in 2024.

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