Blog Post

The housing election that wasn’t

With a few exceptions, the period of 22 May to 4 July 2024 was possibly the most predictable election in recent history. After six weeks of campaigning, debates and gaffes, nothing really changed. There was no breakout moment, no shifting of the debate, and no risk that the result would be anything other than a Labour landslide.

For housing campaigners, the lack of debate around the housing crisis will stand out as a missed opportunity. Before the election, housing advocates excitedly pointed to the increased salience of housing in polling, and its prominence in Labour’s 5 missions. But it hardly featured in the air war, the debates, or major policy announcements.

We can now look with hope to a Labour government poised to boost housing supply, improve quality of existing stock and reform problematic tenures like leasehold and private rent. But we should also ask: why was housing so absent from the election campaign; does this matter; and how can campaigners ensure that it is at the heart of the political discussion?

Multi-party consensus

Many pundits (including this one) pointed to housing as a dividing line at this election. The Conservatives had poignant housing failures around the Renters’ Reform Bill’s collapse and housing targets. Meanwhile, housing was at the centre of Labour’s policy offer, with the pledge to build 1.5 million homes, reform the private rental sector, and improve quality.

But the parties’ manifestos showed a relative consensus on housing policy. All agreed that housing supply needed to be sped up, with a focus on brownfield regeneration. All agreed on introducing some planning reform, with popular-sounding buzzwords to soften its potential risk. All agreed that reform of the private sector was needed. And all agreed that there was room for more social housing in the mix.

Meanwhile, more radical provisions such as rent regulation, ending the Right to Buy, or rebalancing the existing home ownership model, were off the table, meaning that there was little room for scare tactics.

What few dividing lines existed were either technical or risky. The Conservatives laid out their “cast-iron commitment to protect the Green Belt”, and while this was raised on the occasional front page it was never a fight which Labour sought. And few are qualified to, for instance, authoritatively debate the differences between Labour and the Conservatives’ leasehold policies.

The tightrope to a majority

One thing that has become clear since the election is how close things were in so many seats. While Labour’s majority is historic, it is built on precarious electoral foundations.

In housing terms, this was a tactical sacrifice of tens of thousands of votes in urban, renter-heavy seats, in exchange for those of suburban or rural, predominantly homeowner votes.

More so than in 2019 Labour’s electoral coalition contains a mix of those who are at the sharpest end of the housing crisis, and those who might worry that they would lose out from the change that is needed to solve it.

The parliamentary majority won at this election will make enacting this change easier, but making this a dividing line would have risked that majority. Labour’s ‘Ming vase’ strategy has successfully delivered dozens of MPs in previously safe Conservative seats like Hitchin and Gloucester, and talking more about planning reform or private rental reform might have lost a fair number of MPs who can now champion a wide range of progressive causes, including in housing.

This was particularly difficult in the tax-and-spend debate. So much of the election debate concerned the risk of future taxation from a Labour government, and so, while investing in skills, quality improvements, and unlocking developments may well ‘pay for themselves’ in the long run, any discussion of the amounts of spending involved would have led to further concerns of how to pay for this.

Linking the issues

Issues like the cost-of-living crisis and the state of the economy have been at the top of the political agenda at this election, but advocates failed to effectively link this to the high cost and low quality of housing.

In part, this is a symptom of the multiple crises going on in housing at the same time. The private renter locked out of home ownership and the historic resident of a dilapidated social housing block are suffering from different, albeit linked, policy failures.  

During a an election campaign, it was easier to speak of how delivering GB Energy could result in cheaper and greener power, than to explain to voters how reforming a tenure they weren’t living in, or building homes they couldn’t afford, would benefit their lives.

The real campaign is just starting

Does it matter that this was not a ‘housing election’? High salience debates often lead to polarising and extreme answers, particularly in two-party systems like the UK. And in housing, where so much is decided by the markets and private business, such populist answers can be particularly dangerous.

Whatever the state of the debate, Labour comes into office with a mandate to enact transformational change. Already planning reform is being mentioned as a priority for the first 100 days, and much more may follow soon.  

Now is the time of lowest risk and greatest opportunity. Debates about the scale of the solutions needed to end the various housing crises can be had without the risk of being turned into an attack line. And new MPs are more aware than ever of how tight their majorities are and the need to deliver for their constituents.

The task of advocates is now to drive the discussion with the hundreds of new MPs, many of whom care deeply about the housing crisis. Campaigners need to get better at demonstrating that the root causes of the housing crises, particularly the overall housing shortage, affect everyone regardless of tenure or security.   

By showing how certain reforms will help new MPs’ constituents, particularly those in marginal seats, campaigners can build a coalition for change in between elections.

This election may not have been a turning point in the debate. But, for housing advocates, the real campaign has just begun.

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“But what will Labour do differently?”

The general election is well underway. Across the country, thousands of Labour activists are speaking with voters and making the case for them to put their trust in us.

By all indicators, Britain is sick of fourteen years of Conservative failure. Only 15% of voters are satisfied with the government, and only 16% with Rishi Sunak’s record.

But we cannot take for granted the millions of voters intending to vote Labour, and need to reach out to the millions still who have not made up their minds. The need to make the case for a Labour government is greater than ever.

Voters may be sick of the Conservatives, but will still ask that crucial question: “what will Labour do differently?”

Housing is one of the sharpest dividing lines of this election. As the housing crisis intensifies it has risen up the list of voters’ priorities. It is an area where the Conservatives have most evidently failed, and where Labour has a clear plan.

Labour’s manifesto may well drop soon- this usually happens three weeks before an election. But, until then, how do we answer this question from voters?

Delivering the homes we need

Since the Second World War, the UK has failed to build 4.3 million homes compared to the average European country. Campaigns across the political spectrum recognise the need to build at least 300,000 a year to meet this backlog.

The Conservatives promised this at the last election, but repeatedly failed to deliver. They dropped a promised reform of the planning system to get Britain building, and scrapped their own housing target to appease their own backbenchers.

Meanwhile, a decade of austerity has hollowed out council planning departments, preventing them from making local plans to let communities have a say in what homes are built where. By accelerating the Right to Buy they sold off 113,000 council homes, while the number of households in temporary accommodation has soared to over 100,000.

Labour has a plan to undo these mistakes. With a sizeable majority, Labour will have the ability to reform the planning system to get Britian building, prioritising brownfield land to deliver 1.5 million homes over the next Parliament. By also reforming planning and slowing down the Right to Buy, Labour plans to deliver the biggest boost to affordable housing in a generation.

This won’t just be a builders’ charter either. By recruiting 300 extra local planners, Labour will empower local communities to take back control of their local areas and have a say over what is built where. And Labour will ensure that Section 106 agreements by developers are met, so that essential schools, roads, and GP surgeries are delivered alongside the homes we need.

Key to this will be a fresh generation of New Towns, built with mandated principles behind them, of 40% affordable and social homes, community infrastructure, transport links, and beautiful design.

By delivering the homes the country needs, Labour will put in the cornerstone to tackling the housing crisis.

Ending exploitation in the private rental sector and leasehold

The housing shortage has enabled bad actors in the private rental sector to abuse their power. While rents skyrocket, tenants are forced into overcrowded, poor-quality accommodation, often with the threat of eviction if they ask for even the slightest improvements.

The Conservatives came to power with a crystal-clear commitment to strengthen renters’ rights, and even introduced legislation in 2021 to do so. But the chaos of three prime ministers and sixhousing ministers, and the opposition of a hardcore lobby of landlord MPs have obstructed progress, and so Rishi Sunak failed to get this bill passed into law.

Not only will Labour strengthen protections for renters, but they will go further to ensure that they have the stability they deserve. A Labour government will end Section 21 ‘no-fault’ evictions, ensure that reported hazards in private rented homes are investigated within 14 days, and outlaw rental bidding wars.

Similarly, the Conservatives promised to reform the feudal practice of leasehold, to protect leaseholders from exploitative service charges and unfair practice. But, once again, this was watered down. A Labour government will pick up their mess by implementing the thorough recommendations for reform presented by the Law Commission.

Better and warmer homes

The UK has some of the oldest housing stock and least energy efficient homes in Europe. As a result, residents pay more for less, with higher energy bills, colder homes, and health risks from damp and mould, while heating our buildings also comprises 14% of our carbon emissions.  

Improving the quality of our homes will improve lives, tackle climate change and make the UK less reliant on oil-rich dictators like Vladimir Putin.

But Rishi Sunak has failed to take the necessary steps to improve home quality. Not only did he scrap the UK’s Energy Efficiency Taskforce as a political stunt, but his Great British Insulation Scheme, designed to insulate 300,000 homes by 2026, has so far only helped 7,720 households.  

Labour has a clear plan to improve home quality for the millions impacted by our poor-quality stock. A Labour government will introduce a ‘Decent Homes Standard 2’ for the private rental sector, after the first iteration by the Blair government improved lives for millions of renters. Meanwhile, a Warm Homes Plan will insulate 5 million homes by 2030, bringing them up to a minimum EPC C rating.

Reasons for hope

Fourteen years of Conservative housing failure have left the whole country footing the bill. But a Labour government with the energy and passion for change can put a stop to this. The party has a clear plan to deliver the homes we need, improve the ones we have, and protect from exploitation those at the sharpest end of the housing crisis.

“What will Labour do differently?” In housing, a hell of a lot.   

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Planning for 1.5m homes: What are Labour’s Options for Reform?

Key to Labour’s policy offer is a pledge to build 1.5 million homes during the next parliament. Doing so would be transformative, lowering costs, creating tens of thousands of new jobs, and funding the creation of a new generation of affordable and social houses. 

Increasing housebuilding is easier said than done. Despite a similar target of 300,000 homes a year, the current government is well short of this. Only 232,800 homes were delivered last year, and a downturn is expected as the country’s economic situation worsens. 

Reforming the planning system will be a key plank of achieving this goal, after being identified as the most substantial barrier to delivering new homes in a survey by the Federation of Master Builders. This will not be easy, however, given how complicated the planning system is. 

The problems with the planning system go well beyond the obstacles it presents to building new homes, and it rarely incentivises building high-quality dwellings well-resourced by local infrastructure and amenities. But, in order to achieve its goal of 1.5 million homes, a future Labour government will need to find priority areas to alter in ways which maximise impact while reducing controversy.

Reducing the Burden

The planning system is burdensome for everyone involved. While debate often focuses on the onus on housebuilders, any document filled in by a developer also has to be read by a planning officer, councillors, and locals keen to have an input into developments in their area. 

This is in part due to regulations being duplicated, between national and local requirements, and within the same local authority. There will be a degree of overlap, for instance, between a tree survey, arboriculture impact assessment, and biodiversity survey. But some councils ask developers for all three. 

This can also be due to regulation being in the planning system inappropriately, regardless of how noble its intensions are. For instance, it is currently impossible to build homes in areas with particularly high nutrient pollution – even though new housing contributes to less than 1% of said pollution. 

A root and branch review of the planning system, ensuring that regulations are not duplicated are in the right place, would reduce the burden for everybody involved in planning and speed up the pipeline of new homes.

Standardising Requirements

Similarly, the complexity of the planning map is an obstacle to building new homes. England contains 391 local planning authorities, ranging from Rutland and its 41,381 residents to Birmingham, the largest local authority in Europe. 

Each of these areas will then have subtle differences in regulations required. These can be seen in the ‘planning validation checklist’, a list of planning documents local planning that authorities are required to publish. Research conducted by the Housing Forum has shown that many authorities lack an up-to-date checklist, and of those that did, the number of documents required to build as few as 10 homes could range from 24 to 42. 

Simplifying and standardising requirements between local authorities, and even considering more radical steps like transferring planning powers to county or combined authorities, would reduce local variation, without reducing the quality of regulation.

Supporting Planners

Delays in the planning system are in part caused by capacity issues in local authorities. Only one in ten local authorities have fully staffed planning departments, with 70% reporting difficulties recruiting new planners. This is fuelled by pay disparity between public and private sectors, difficult backlogs, and online abuse – as a result a quarter of planners have left the public sector in the last ten years. 

It is in part due to this that one in five local authorities still lack an up-to-date local plan. 

Reversing this decline in the public sector would speed up the delivery of planning applications, improve the institutional expertise within the planning system, and help local authorities and developers to work together more effectively to deliver locally appropriate schemes.

Repositioning Democratic Input

Much as excessive paperwork makes navigating the planning system difficult for everyone involved, so too does the nature of democratic input frustrate both those seeking to build new homes, and residents looking to have an impact on their local community. 

Currently, locals get most involved in commenting on individual planning applications, which will already have been drawn up in partnership with a developer and a local authority. The fact that 90 percent of planning applications in the UK are approved points to the fact that most of these are a finalised and detailed product. Thus local input is often perfunctory and ineffective, and many can feel that they have little voice in the process. 

Similarly, developers often express concern that plans can either be delayed or cancelled outright by a particularly vocal local campaign, and councillors can often feel pressured by a vocal minority of residents who often little as small as 1 – 3 percent of a local population 

Meanwhile, as Labour’s Planning Commission (2019) notes, engaging at an earlier stage, when councils draw up their local plans, “often made plan making unapproachable and sometimes intimidating for residents”. After all, residents are seldom planners, architects, or contractors: but they contain valuable knowledge about their local area which should be put to use in constructing local plans. 

Simplifying democratic input at the local plan making stage would make it easier for local people to get involved, for councils to focus attention to a single event, while empowering a greater range of voices.  

This is similar to the calls for a ‘zoning’ system, promoted by organisations such as the Centre for Cities. This would bring the UK in line with comparable democracies, by removing the discretionary nature of the planning system, where planning committees decide on individual applications. Instead land would be designated for a certain use, such as ‘housing’, ‘industry’, or ‘commercial use’, and a set of regulations then applied. Developments which followed these regulations would then be automatically approved. 

Countries like New Zealand, and individual cities like Austin in the US changed their planning systems from discretionary ones to zoning systems, and both saw an increase in housebuilding and a comparative decrease in house prices.  

While moving to such a system would require intensive legislation, moving community input upstream in the planning system could be a suitable stepping stone to simplify the democratic process while broadening it out to a wider audience. 

Reforming the planning system is far from an easy process, and successive governments have promised it and failed to deliver. But identifying achievable and high impact goals will be crucial for a future Labour government to speed up the delivery of homes and meet its 1.5 million home goal. 

This is the first part of a 4-part series in what a Labour government can do to meet its 1.5 million homes goal. Stay tuned for future instalments!

Alex Toal is Communications Executive at The Housing Forum, a cross-sector housing membership organisation representing local authorities, housing associations, contractors and a range of other housing sector organisations. Before joining THF, Alex worked at the Institute for Government and Make Votes Matter, and is a ward organiser for Cities of London and Westminster PPC Rachel Blake. Based in Haringey, Alex helps to run his local LGBTQ+ tennis group and volunteers at his local food bank.