What lessons can Labour learn from Conservative housing policy since 2010?

After what will have been fourteen years of Conservative rule, there is an increasing likelihood that a Labour government will be elected in 2024. Recent polls indicate that Labour are currently 20 points ahead of the Conservatives.[1]  This shift in public sentiment signifies a significant moment for change, diverging from the continued Conservative leadership that has persisted since 2010.

This blog focuses on the housing delivery trends that occurred in the last political party shift experienced in the United Kingdom, when David Cameron took power from Gordon Brown in 2010. It is interesting that the issues and solutions identified in this period are similar to the ones which Keir Starmer will find himself facing if Labour do win the upcoming election.

Recession, Austerity, and the National Planning Policy Framework

Prior to the Conservative election victory of 2010, Gordon Brown had struggled to meet housing delivery targets since his election in 2007. Figure 1 illustrates the extent to which housing delivery in this period was struggling in comparison to government targets. This struggle reflects the realities of the financial crisis and subsequent recession from 2008 onwards. The ‘credit crunch’ in this period led to significantly fewer mortgage grants, dampening the appetite for investment in new housing developments.

Figure 1 – Housing delivery across governments since 2001

Source: DLUHC, 2023. Live tables on housing supply: net additional dwellings

David Cameron and George Osborne won power on their promise of austerity as a fiscal policy in response to the recession created by the financial crisis of 2008. Austerity involves cuts to public sector budgets in an attempt to reduce government expenditure and thereby the budget deficit. This fiscal approach contradicts efforts to boost housing delivery as the government is less likely to fund housing projects or invest in the necessary social infrastructure for sustainable development. Local authorities also had substantially lower budgets to invest in housing developments and the planning process. 

In an attempt to solve this housing delivery issue within the constraints of austerity, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was introduced in 2012. The NPPF aimed to simplify the planning process in the UK by eliminating unnecessary obstacles.

It would have been typical for a piece of policy such as the NPPF to have been drafted by civil servants, however, due to the high level of importance and urgency, drafting was assigned to a four-member practitioners’ advisory group which was made up of industry professionals.

The first draft of the NPPF embraced a pro-growth, deregulationist agenda with a strong emphasis on economic growth. The draft set the foundation that the “default answer to development proposals is ‘yes’”.[2] However, the draft faced significant backlash in public consultation. The ‘Hands Off Our Land’ campaign garnered support from environmental and natural conservation groups. This led to Cameron being forced into compromise and resulted in a watered-down version of the deregulation agenda in the final NPPF published in 2012.[3]

Whilst the publishing of the NPPF directly correlated with enhanced housing delivery, the Cameron government was not able to meet its yearly housing delivery target until its final year in power. 

Similar challenges for Keir Starmer

At the recent Labour Party conference Keir Starmer firmly put housing delivery at the top of this agenda through a centrepiece announcement of delivering 1.5 million homes over the next parliament. Included within this target is a commitment to delivering 300,000 additional homes per annum and increasing home ownership to 70 percent. It is worth noting that this target matches the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto goal.[4]   

The stance of Starmer’s election speech was very much pro-development and anti-nimby (Not In My Back Yard). The fundamental features of Labours housing policy are as follows:

·        A housing recovery plan to speed up and deregulate the planning process;

·        The next generation of ‘New Towns’;

·        Devolving planning powers to Mayors; and

·        Development on the green belt in the ‘right areas’.

This housing policy has been supported by the development sector as it represents an ambitious policy which tackles fundamental flaws in the current planning and development process. Central to this are the reforms to the green belt and the generation of ‘new towns’. Both of these policies are ambitious and carry significant potential if implemented correctly.

However, there will be challenges in the implementation of this policy. There is bound to be a strong local opposition and as well as backlash from environmental and natural conservation groups, particularly in green belt areas. Even a Labour government that wins a substantial number of seats will not be able to avoid resistance to these housing policies in areas such as the South East. This trend alone proved challenging for Cameron back when the NPPF was being introduced. In order to minimise potential backlash, it is important that good design principles are followed when proposing development projects. Factors such as an appropriate provision of social housing, green infrastructure, and pursuing biodiversity net gain will prove invaluable in minimising local resistance.   

Housebuilders in the UK have continuously blamed ‘Nimby backbench’ MP’s for failing to tackle barriers to development. Red tape and hold-ups have resulted in the longest ever waiting times in securing planning permissions. The fact that Starmer himself has admitted that he has taken nimby stances in the past to defend his constituents illustrates the scale of what is he is asking from his MPs.

What is clear is that if Labour’s ambitious housing policy is to be successful, it requires support from the whole party, even if that means challenging the interests of certain constituents. At Volterra, we aim to support sustainable developments that follow good design principles. Developments that cater to identified local needs help to get communities on side. Such community-based initiatives will be crucial if Labours housing policy is to be successful.  

Charlie Crosbie – Consultant

If you require socio-economic support, please feel free to contact us: Phone: 020 4529 1736 Emailinfo@volterra.co.uk

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