Richard Brown: Labour manifesto offers cautious London housing ambition

Richard Brown: Labour manifesto offers cautious London housing ambition

The 2024 Labour manifesto stands in curious contrast to the Conservatives’. Rather than wacky suggestions for turning inner London into Paris, we have a document with more than 130 mentions of “change” but tantalisingly few specifics about how this change will be realised. A Labour government “will introduce effective new mechanisms”, “will strengthen”, “will take steps to ensure”, “will review”, “will work with partners to drive”.

You have to think/hope that the Labour front bench has some idea how they will actually achieve these aims, but they are certainly not telling us what they are – understandably so when they are riding so high in the polls and staring down queasily at the rocks below.

On housing, the target of 1.5 million new homes over the next Parliament is 100,000 less than the Conservatives have pledged to “deliver”, but still way ahead of build rates in the past 25 years. With the exception of a crowd-pleasing stamp duty surcharge for foreign buyers there is not much detail, but the manifesto does sketch out some of the bottom-up carrots and top-down sticks that will “get Britain building again”.

These carrots and sticks are presented as working together in single-minded pursuit of Labour’s mission to “kickstart economic growth”, but you can see some internal tensions. There will be more money for planners, but also tougher sanctions where local plans are absent or outdated. Communities will shape housebuilding, but a Labour government will intervene where necessary. Development will be “brownfield first”, but there will also be a “strategic approach” to Green Belt designation and release. There will be new towns, but planned and built in partnership with local communities.

There is a commitment to “exemplary development” and a careful pledge that, in some cases, compulsory purchase prices will be based on “fair compensation” rather than on the values that could be achieved once planning permission is granted. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Act introduced limited provision for this at the discretion of the Secretary of State, so Labour would presumably extend this. A wider application will be particularly important for new towns or planned urban extensions in the Green Belt, where unknown speculators are rumoured to buy up options on “strategic land” in the hope of untold rewards if planning permission should ever be granted.

Metro Mayors and combined authorities will be given a role in planning for housing growth, perhaps modelled on the powers that the Mayor of London has today. This looks like a good way of bridging between the central and local priorities, but could also create clashes between elected Labour Mayors and an elected Labour government. Sadiq Khan has already taken a stronger line against Green Belt development than the Labour leadership does, and the London Plan has been criticised by Michael Gove’s department for overloading developers with planning obligations. There are good reasons to be optimistic about what Khan can achieve with a Labour government, but there may still be storms ahead.

Renters will get protection from unfair Section 21 eviction and arbitrary rent rises (as promised but not delivered by the Conservatives). In addition, the manifesto pledges “the biggest boost in social and affordable housebuilding in a generation” – somehow achieved with existing Affordable Homes Programme funding – and to reduce the scope of Right-to-Buy.

The flagship policy to help first-time homebuyers – a mortgage guarantee scheme to reduce the deposits needed – is not described in any detail. However, if it is anything like the one introduced by the current government in 2021, it will have limited impact in London: buyers still need to put down a minimum five per cent, which can easily be £20,000 or more in the capital. Recent government statistics show that the scheme was only used by around 1,500 London first-time buyers (with an average household income of £95,000) between April 2021 and September 2023, fewer than any other English region. The deposit gap will remain a huge challenge for many Londoners.

This general election campaign has been odd in many ways, and the main parties’ manifestos underline this. The Conservatives’ document reads like a challenger’s – full of shiny, eye-catching initiatives gleaned from think tanks and special advisors. By contrast, for all its change-y vibes, Labour’s is cautious, sensible and careful not to leave a flank exposed to enemy fire, but with some inherent tensions half-glimpsed beneath the surface.

Serious discussion of London and its problems is absent from either manifesto (Labour only mention the capital twice: once as a case study voter’s workplace and once as the party’s postal address), but this may not be a bad thing after a decade when the capital has been used as a general purpose scapegoat for everything from regional inequality, to Brexit division, to populist discontent. Maybe that type of debate feels a bit beside the point given the challenges the whole country faces today. It would be good if we could use this election to move beyond it.

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