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The promise of New Towns

A new generation of New Towns – tree-lined and with character rooted in local history! Angela Rayner outlined Labour’s ambitions at a UK housing conference in Leeds yesterday. The announcement adds more detail to the headline-grabbing New Towns plan unveiled at the Labour Conference in October 2023.

Housing campaigners have been delighted to see Labour’s priority for tackling the severe shortage of homes in England, but there have been some words of caution from economists on the lessons to be learnt from previous New Towns.

Rayner set out a robust code for Labour’s proposed New Towns with six principles. The boldest is a gold standard of 40% social and affordable housing. Another is a guarantee of public transport and public services such as GP surgeries. The code aims to overcome common objections to new developments with a focus on characterful buildings, incorporating local design, and access to nature and children’s play areas.

There has been some pushback from researchers who worry about the possible locations of New Towns. According to Ant Breach, Associate Director of the Centre for Cities, all “the easy fruit has been picked”. Breach emphasised that “you have to lean into the geography of the economy in Britain.” Others have pointed to the lack of delivery on new community infrastructure in more recent iterations of New Towns. Northstowe is one such example, where over 2,000 residents lack any shops, café or GP surgery.

New Towns such as Milton Keynes have been successful because they have close connections to vibrant existing economies. They attracted new residents with the promise of well-designed new communities with good transport links to job opportunities in nearby cities.

Some of the most successful New Towns are urban extensions to existing cities, such as Edinburgh’s New Town or Barcelona’s Eixample. Less successful New Towns have been poorly located with no such links to jobs nearby or there were already lots of local housing options already. Skelmersdale and Cumbernauld are often mentioned as New Towns that struggled to thrive for these exact reasons. The key is location, location, location.

New homes in Britain are difficult to build in part due to complex and lengthy planning processes. New Towns can help with that and may even help sidestep the political logjams that currently block homes. One motivation for New Towns is that Labour could get the best electoral outcomes by choosing deep rural locations with good rail connections, to avoid controversial measures in the more electorally challenging suburbs.

There are clear lessons from previous plans that New Towns need to be in the right locations and that delivery is a challenge. The Department for Levelling-Up, Housing and, Communities has limited resources, as does Homes England. It will be important to pick New Town sites that deliver the biggest social and economic benefits. Urban extensions of existing unaffordable towns and cities such as York, Oxford and Reading would be a great way to do this. Locations in areas where homes are more affordable, or less unaffordable, such as Nottingham or Stafford, offer less opportunity for land value capture to fund infrastructure and more social housing. Labour’s new commitment on New Towns is a bold proposal to build affordable, plentiful homes. A Labour Government must be focused on delivering homes at scale to tackle Britain’s housing crisis. New Towns can offer hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to have a home of their own. It can also unlock the economic potential of some of our most constrained cities, helping with housing, jobs and public services across the whole country. The key will be delivery at pace. I have confidence in Angela Rayner to do that.

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Labour’s housing promise must invoke the spirit of 1945

Recent statements by both Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy about the need for more housebuilding, especially more council housing, together with a commitment to offer new protections for those in rented accommodation is, on the face of it, encouraging  news.  However, we await with interest the detail on Labour’s housing plans, notably how a future Labour government intend to reform the planning regime, which Labour says is necessary to facilitate its future housing programme. 

The next Labour government will inherit a housing crisis of mammoth proportions. The number of households living in inadequate and temporary accommodation is rising exponentially, whilst rough sleeping numbers continue to increase. Thirteen years of Conservative inaction and neglect on housing, particularly the gross under-provision of affordable and social housing has left Britain facing a housing crisis comparable to that of 1945. A future Labour government must be bold on housing in both quantitative and qualitative terms. A major housebuilding programme will not only provide the much-needed homes for families and individuals, it will also contribute significantly to Labour’s plans to grow the economy.  

The parallels with 1945 are substantial. The post-war Attlee government was not only bequeathed a housing crisis, it inherited an economy in almost total meltdown. Indeed, in 1945 the economist John Maynard Keynes described Britain’s economic plight as a ‘financial Dunkirk.’ Despite this, the 1945-1951 Labour government built over 1.2 million new homes including more than one million council houses. Nonetheless, the housing record of the post-war Labour government is not without its critics, with some housing specialists and historians describing it as both an underachievement and a welfare state failure. In my essay published in Labour History Review (April 2022) Labour History Review Volume 87 (2022), Issue 1 – Society for the Study of Labour History ( I challenge this notion and argue that Labour’s post-war housing record, if assessed on the basis of both the quantity and the quality of the houses constructed, in addition to the political ideology that underpinned the housing programme, far from being one of underachievement and failure, was one of radical and progressive achievement. 

The housing promise, contained in Labour’s manifesto for the 1945 general election, Let Us Face the Future, was bigger on rhetoric than it was on specifics. However, an analysis of the relevant documents of the period, reveals that Labour’s housing ethos was based on four broadly defined policy areas: quantitative performance; affordability; qualitative performance; and planning and control of land use. As we have seen, when Labour left office in October 1951, it had presided over the construction of more than 1.2 million new permanent dwellings. In addition, a further 490,000 units of accommodation of various types had also been provided, including more than 157,000 temporary prefabricated bungalows.  Moreover, the Labour government, in an attempt to make council housing more affordable, introduced a generous housing subsidy that increased the money value of the Exchequer contribution from a ratio of 2:1 to 3:1 payable over 60 rather than 40 years, easing the financial burden on local councils. The subsidy was seen also as an incentive to local councils to boost quantitative output.

Although the post-war Labour government’s priority was focused mainly on housing in the public sector, it nonetheless introduced legislation to protect tenants in the private sector. Such measures included the introduction of rent control on new houses built for private let. Such houses had been exempted from rent control during the period 1919 to 1939. Tenants of furnished properties were afforded protection by the introduction of rent tribunals. In addition, rent tribunals could extend the security of a tenant’s lease on a rented property and review payments made by the tenant to the landlord in respect of accommodation, furniture, and other items. The rent tribunals were given powers to recover excess payments, by way of a reduction in rent.  The Attlee government acted robustly to afford protection to tenants renting in the private sector.

The post-war Labour government set about ensuring that housing standards, particularly in terms of space, facilities and equipment were implemented in the new permanent dwellings built by councils across the country. Crucially, the provision of high qualitative housing standards provided a vehicle by which the health and wellbeing of tenants could be enhanced. Labour took its lead from the seminal report Design of Dwellings (more commonly known as the Dudley Report), that in 1944 recommended much improved housing standards in houses built post-war by local authorities. A standard three-bedroom house built in 1948 was typically one-third larger than its 1930s equivalent. Such houses contained two toilets, which was at the time considered a great luxury. High standards were guaranteed by way of the application of tight control over housing plans by the regional offices of the Ministry of Health and by attaching conditions to the approval of housing subsidy from the national Exchequer. 

The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was arguably one of the most radical pieces of legislation affecting housing. The passing of the 1947 Act fulfilled Labour’s manifesto commitment to implement a full programme of land planning and the pledge that housing should be dealt with in relation to good town planning, including pleasant surroundings, green spaces, and attractive layout. This more strategic approach to planning offered support to the concept of neighbourhood planning including improved housing and community standards.  The statute was ideologically radical in that it vested the control of land use in public hands.  The 1947 Act became the foundation of modern town and country planning in Britain, and together with the New Towns Act 1946 created a system of land use control and a machinery for positive town construction. The creation of new towns facilitated by the 1946 Act not only provided a further vehicle for the building of public sector housing for rent, it enabled the creation of more heterogeneous communities. In this respect planning, as a means to enhance and shape society was crucial to the success of Labour’s housing programme.

The ideology of the welfare state, epitomised in its defining features of the malleability of society, economic intervention by the state, universal provision and the health and wellbeing of citizens, were inherently present across all four major areas of Labour’s housing policy aims: quantity, quality, affordability and planning and the control of land use.  Ideologically, the post-war Labour government could and perhaps should have gone further by, for example, bringing the private rented sector under public control. Labour seriously considered such a course in 1948, but most probably rejected the proposal not on ideological grounds but on grounds of financial economy. However, Labour did legislate to make council housing ‘universally’ available for general needs by way of the Housing Act 1949. The 1949 Act was ground-breaking in that it removed the stipulation that council housing should be designated as working-class housing, a provision that had featured, in various forms, in every previous housing statute enabling the provision of housing by public authorities. 

Labour’s housing promise at the next election must invoke the spirit of 1945 by committing to a housing programme of significant proportions in terms of quantity and quality, underpinned by a progressive planning regime and a housing ideology dedicated to helping those in the greatest housing need.

Dr John Temple is a retired housing professional, specialising in community investment initiatives and tenant involvement. He served as a Labour councillor between 1981 and 2004 and was Deputy Leader of South Tyneside Council from 1997 to 2004. He received his PhD from the University of Sunderland for his assessment of Labour’s housing record, 1945 to 1951.

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How do we reset the housing market?

England’s housing system has failed. We need to press the reset button on housing – let’s start with planning.

Rampant house price inflation. Hundreds of thousands of people trapped in unsafe buildings. Tens of thousands of families made homeless during a global pandemic. Our housing system is broken.

You would think given the state of things, that fundamental reform of housing would be top of the political agenda and an obvious vote winner. Yet this isn’t the case and we’ve seen no substantive policy action in decades, with the supply of new homes per year now well below the housebuilding highs of the  1960s and 1970s. Despite being badly needed, the popularity of the ‘not in my backyard’ mantra has made housing reform politically untenable, with devastating consequences.

This problem is most obvious at the local level. While many voters are often sympathetic to the problems of housing affordability and homelessness, they too often oppose the construction of new homes, including affordable homes. Building more homes would help tackle such problems by directly increasing the supply of affordable homes and expanding the number of housing options available to people more generally.

England’s housing crisis is a product of multiple local housing crises. In many of the areas where opposition to new homes is strongest, affordability problems are often the worst. Of course, the ramifications of this crisis are not felt equally. It is often the younger and less well-off residents who are eventually priced out of their own communities.

Building more and better homes is not a panacea. But we must acknowledge it is part of the solution. As Geoff Meen, one of the UK’s foremost housing experts has pointed out, it’s ‘perfectly possible for there to be both an absolute shortage of homes and a distribution problem’. In essence, we are not building enough homes in England, and we do not have the right policies to create more sustainable credit conditions or ensure fair access to housing for people on all incomes.

Once we acknowledge that building more homes is part of the solution, then the next question we must answer is ‘how do we build more’? Part of the answer lies in the way we deliver homes through England’s planning system. While the government’s proposed reforms aren’t flawless, they do present a vision. Significant questions about what these reforms could mean for the delivery of affordable housing persist and they certainly don’t go far enough in tackling high land values.

The answer to these weaknesses is better reforms, not no reforms. We must imagine a better alternative to our current planning system if we are to tackle the root causes of the housing crisis.

To show their credibility on housing issues, political parties must better sell a vision for a planning system that delivers the homes we need and in doing so, stops people from being priced out of their communities. That requires putting aside the short-term gains of winning immediate votes by objecting to local development and instead explaining why we need to build more homes in this country. Making the case for more homes nationally while opposing them in their backyard reduces the credibility of any national message politicians might have on housing.

The widespread opposition to the government’s planning reforms suggest that they were dead on arrival. That is not a reason to abandon attempts to address the housing crisis. At the moment, our planning system reinforces England’s broken housing market because land that obtains planning permission increases exponentially in value. This makes it increasingly difficult to build homes at affordable prices. Despite this, suitable policy solutions such as the introduction of zoning policy find few advocates and instead, the dysfunctional status quo persists.

We need to build a new consensus on housing. It is time to move beyond the short-term gains and quick wins that come from opposing new homes. Instead, politicians must present a bold and radical vision for how they will address England’s housing crisis. Now is the time for radical and ambitious vision that would improve the supply of high-quality and affordable homes, while also tackling the unfair distribution of homes.  The myriad of problems facing the housing market – from the building safety crisis to rampant unaffordability – will only get worse without action to deliver better quality and more affordable homes.

The longer the housing crisis goes unfixed, the more damage it does. Progressives must not fall into the trap of opposition for opposition’s sake. Instead, they should articulate a clear vision that that explains why the housing market is broken, why we need radical action to fix things and how a fairer society can be created if we get things right. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Jonathan Webb</span></strong>
Jonathan Webb

Jonathan Webb is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North. He tweets @jrkwebb.

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More new homes, Grant? Yes or no?

The National Housing Federation’s statement, based on Oxford Economics’ Research, that home ownership will continue to decline, from  73 per cent of households at its peak to a likely 64 per cent in the next decade, brought Grant Shapps into the spotlight on the Today programme this morning.
Interviewer Evan Davies knows a little economics and that relief for the millions locked out of home ownership will only come from much greater housebuilding (interview available on iplayer).  So he badgered our friend to say if housebuilding would increase as a result of the government’s various policies.  Now you might imagine that the answer would be ‘yes’.  But instead there was prevarication and several attempts to explain the intricacies of the New Homes Bonus, bottom up rather than top down, and the rest.  It was a minor relief that he didn’t explain his houseboat strategy.
Davies, apparently unimpressed, pressed the simple point about whether building will rise.  Yes or no?  Our hero blustered… difficult to predict… try to make them go up… disappointed if not… pulling out all of the stops…  Still the word ‘yes’ did not escape from his lips.
What can we read into this equivocation?  Well, a cynic would say he knows that
housebuilding is not going to increase under his policies and may well fall into further decline.  And even a friendly interpretation could go no further than to suggest the probable real truth.  He has no idea.  One giant experiment – scrapping the regional
framework of strategies and targets in favour of localism plus a little financial incentive – is leading to chaos and uncertainty and power being put in the hands of those opposed to housebuilding.  No-one knows what the outcome will be, but we can all guess.
Amongst other indicators, the Oxford Economics report shows that the number of projects receiving planning approval – an important measure of the ‘pipeline’ for new build – has not recovered from the collapse caused by the recession.  According to OE, the policy changes “are already having an impact on the planning decisions made by a number of local authorities – e.g. Bristol and the surrounding authorities, Milton Keynes and Leeds have cut their future housing allocations by a total of 88,000 according to the Home Building Federation. As such, we see only a gradual recovery in house building – it will take until 2020 or beyond for new starts to reach pre-crisis levels.”
The NHF is calling for more government investment in affordable housing to stimulate a wider, faster economic recovery, for suitable surplus public land to be made available for the building of affordable homes, for local authorities to regularly assess housing need and for ministers to make a renewed commitment to building the homes the country needs.