A Labour government has the opportunity to reform UK housing policy – will they take it?
By Kelly Edwards, head of Public Policy at Instinctif Partners
Every general election is unique in its own way, and one of the things that may mark out the 2024 contest from other elections may be its focus on house building. For years it has been the topic that dare not speak its name; politicians can get very nervous when challenged over exactly what they will do about Britain’s chronic housing shortage.
At last week’s Built Environment networking and panel event at Instinctif Partners London offices, participants from across the housing and development space quizzed panellists on how the industry stands in the wake of this year’s party conference season. This year, former Labour Minister Tom Harris, former Conservative Minister David Gauke – both of whom are Senior Consultants to Instinctif – as well as Grainne Gilmore, who is Head of Research at Cluttons, joined me on the panel chaired by former Telegraph Business editor, Damian Reece.
Like most Chatham house rules events, there were a lot of insights, strong opinions, and at times, constructive disagreement. One thing we did all agree on was that Labour is extremely likely to win the next General Election, with Keir Starmer heading either a minority or majority government. This sentiment was also reflected in Instinctif’s annual Built Environment survey, in which 28 per cent of respondents intended to vote for Labour, over 23 per cent for the Conservatives. However, with the remaining cohort still yet to decide, the competition is still very much on.
For me, the key takeaways from the panel were:
- The built environment space will see some of the biggest impacts of policy change under a Labour Government
- Shadow Ministers and the party behind them are committed to engaging with the business community to help further develop policy now ahead of a manifesto
- If elected, Labour wants to work closely with businesses, partnering when possible, but alongside this, businesses should expect a more intensive approach to regulation as hinted by the reference in Keir’s conference speech to Labour not being about pure free markets nor state control. Businesses who work with the public sector should, in my opinion, expect higher requirements for community, increased community benefits via S106, and more social good through procurement.
Newly revealed policies from Labour could impact the sector in significant ways. For example, restoring house building targets – attendees felt strongly that this would help to see more schemes delivered at planning committee stage. A government target of 70 per cent home ownership has also been mooted to address the difficulties facing first-time buyers trying to get on the ladder.
We can also expect a Labour government to aim to make social housing (rather than private rented sector) the country’s second largest sector. Such policy themes clearly reflect the sentiment of the public at this current time, too. In our survey we asked what policies could help solve the current housing shortage, with the majority (48 per cent) asking for more social housing, followed closely by first-time buyer support (44 per cent).One of Labour’s most eye-catching announcement at conference was Starmer’s announcement of ‘New Towns’ to be developed by Housing Corporations, which would represent the biggest step change in corporate housing since the 1970s. Combined with this is a new determination by Labour to reform the planning process to help unblock new housing development planning applications – a policy that is sure to trigger some interesting conflicts between developers and local communities further down the line.
This will be combined (and possibly hampered) by Labour’s commitment to devolving more power down to local communities. Labour is also beginning to recognise that not all greenbelt is picturesque pastureland of the sort John Constable might have immortalised; neither is all brownfield land suitable for housing developments. Perhaps a new government might spark a more nuanced, sophisticated debate about land use that has been missing from public discourse so far.
Labour also want to see a more strategic and intelligent use of Section 106 powers to try to reduce local opposition from residents in return for enhancements to local facilities by developers.
During the panel debate, I relayed my optimism that we may see faster approvals for affordable schemes via future planning reform following Labour renews commitment, however we await more detail to see how this will be implemented.
Feedback from attendees at the panel event was also optimistic towards what could be a new era for housing. Some raised feedback that build-to-rent must feature in Labour’s plans alongside an acknowledgement that rental is an option that many people wish to have. Others raised questions of whether the party is being overtly optimistic that increased community good-style packages would result in communities supporting developments – turning NIMBYs into YIMBYs.
So, what should people who work in the built environment space do to make a difference and get their voice heard? And why is now the time to talk to shadow ministers?
Labour has been overwhelmed with the level of response from business to its offer to engage. One business reception I attended at the recent party conference had a waiting list of 200 people!
Some attendees told me they had written to party representatives and had not heard back: what should they do? First of all, bear in mind that as the opposition, Labour doesn’t have the support of the civil service or the kind of budget for special advisors that the Government has. My advice is please don’t be disheartened: a lack of response does not mean your viewpoint and expertise is not of interest. Businesses need to persevere, write again, get to events, and keep sharing their expertise. Keep letters and briefings short, ideally one page, maximum two.
Provide solutions and the way forward, detailing how your company/sector has practical suggestions that will aid the party in its policy development and in achieving its aims.
Be careful to not ask for policies that will cost money. Labour has made it clear that fiscal stability is of paramount importance and new policies can only be funded from the proceeds of a growing economy in the future. So make it clear how you can help the economy grow and what the economic benefits of your proposals are.
This next year will be pivotal for the future direction of policy in the UK. Seeking to have an input in that process and to gain influence isn’t necessarily a complicated nor hazardous path with the write advice.
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