Which manifesto is best for housing?

Housing is among the key issues that will swing the 8th June election. Here, the Architecture Foundation examines the main parties’ house-building strategies

Everyone needs a home, that is a universal fact of life. But if you are young and priced out of the market, a buy-to-let landlord or someone who designs housing for a living – this issue is likely to have a major influence over how you vote in June’s election.  For this reason we have trawled the three main parties’ manifestos to bring you a cut-out-and-keep – or click-and-share – guide to where the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats each stand on overcoming your housing woes:

 

Conservatives 

The incumbent party's manifesto promises a new ‘generation’ of social housing but the scope and impact of this commitment remains hard to measure in the absence of a numerical target.  It is proposes that tenancies will only last up to 15 years, after which point the tenant must either buy the unit or leave – a feature which could be great for some and disastrous for others.

Across all tenures the Conservatives have pledged to fulfil their 2015 manifesto promise of one million new homes by 2020, plus an additional 500,000 dwellings by 2022. If the current annual average of 127,000 new homes was delivered between the last election and today, this leaves May committing to 1.246 million over the next five years which is seemingly 25 per cent higher than its main rival Labour. This ambitious target (if it is actually delivered) explains the conviction behind the Tories’ claim that they will slow house price rises and reduce private rents by building ‘enough homes to meet demand’ – something which sounds common sense but is a remarkable move in our current age following decades of under-building. It also explains why, compared to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative manifesto contains no major new measures for private renters or aspiring owners. The absence of rent controls, licensing and other new regulations will bring a welcome sigh of relief to Britain’s army of buy-to-let landlords – who you might reasonably expect to be natural Conservative supporters – and cushion their alarm at pledges to ‘bring the cost of renting [and therefore landlord profits] down’.

Pre-empting a noisy reaction in the Shires, the Conservative manifesto promises to protect Green Belt, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is also only party to explicitly define the appearance of its new housing. Their preference will be for high-quality and high-density forms such as ‘mansion blocks’, ‘mews houses’ and ‘terraced streets’ which is undeniably a clever way to confuse would-be nimbyists. It is also the only manifesto to mention architects directly, stating: ‘For a country boasting the finest architects and planners in the world, [substandard development] is unacceptable.’ Although this outburst was most likely intended to stoke national pride than flatter the profession.

Verdict: Without new market controls any major resolution of the crisis will rely on flooding the country with new housing. However targets have been missed in the past without consequences and it will be easy for the Conservatives to blame outside forces for the inevitable fallout from Brexit when new homes fail to materialise in the promised quantities.

If the Conservatives win: pour yourself a milky tea with two sugars and prepare yourself for the long haul. 

 

Labour

The party which, during its ‘New Labour’ period, reinforced the foundations for our current housing crisis has returned with a radical new outlook after some important penance on the issue. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s much-assailed leadership the manifesto has promised to deliver one million new homes by 2022 including 100,000 new council or housing association units to rent and buy every year. It is a huge step forward from the party’s manifesto two years ago which lacked a clear commitment to social housing. And in contrast to the Conservatives’ manifesto, Labour’s new social homes will have life-long tenancies and the problematic but popular Right-to-Buy will be blocked in all instances where local authorities fail to replace units sold ‘like-for-like’. The controversial Bedroom Tax will meanwhile be abandoned and historic borrowing restrictions on local authorities lifted to kickstart the ‘biggest council building programme for at least 30 years’.

Aspiring home owners will meanwhile have access to Help-to-Buy subsidies until 2027 and receive ‘first dibs’ on any new developments in their local area. The greatest vote-winning incentives are however saved for the growing numbers of – mostly young – people trapped in the exorbitant private rental market. Here Labour is promising new rent controls with annual price rises capped at the level of inflation, new standard three-year tenancies, a licensing programme for landlords, new consumer rights and a  ban on letting agency fees. Taken together these policies are an all-out assault on a market which has brutally exacerbated the have-and-have-not divides which undermine any happy society. The biggest losers will be buy-to-let landlords. New taxes have already slowed their growth in recent years and an unexpected outcome of these latest policies, if implemented, could be that smaller investors sell out to larger companies un-phased by the new regulatory environment. Additional safeguards may therefore be needed in the long-term to prevent monopolies forming and uncontrollable price rises returning.

The delivery of Labour’s housing vision appears to be rooted in another successful concept from the past: The New Town. The party has ruled out Green Belt development and urban sprawl, and instead chosen a fresh wave of urban settlements. Unfortunately, the manifesto yields little insight into whether we should expect a new grid-like Milton Keynes or picturesque Welwyn or how these towns will relate to the UK’s existing geographic distribution of development. Nevertheless they appear to offer an honest and refreshing departure from the rhetorical misuse of the Garden Cities concept which has become popular among politicians in recent years. Overseeing this programme will be a brand new Department for Housing, assisted by a reinvigorated Homes and Communities Agency charged with delivery. The design of such new settlements could be the greatest architectural challenge of our age.

Verdict: Labour’s housing manifesto promises a systemic shock for property sector vested interests, both large and small. Its social housing delivery policy could face major opposition at the local level but would be met with huge enthusiasm by built environment professionals who have been holding out for a much-needed mass house building programme.

If Labour wins: pour yourself a vodka red bull and get sketching.

 

The Liberal Democrats

Drastically scaled-down as a result of over-ambitious 2010 pledges, the Liberal Democrats might be excused for not realising social housing would be a major issue in this election. The party has instead promised it will deliver 300,000 new homes a year with 500,000 of these units ‘affordable’ and energy efficient by 2022. Their real vote-winning thrust has been aimed elsewhere with private renters offered a 'Rent-to-Own' initiative where they receive an increasing stake in their property and outright ownership after 30 years. This policy is supplemented by a new ‘Help-to-Rent’ deposit loans scheme for all first-time renters under 30. Private renters will also have first refusal to buy if their landlord decides to sell while new controls will ensure inflation-linked annual rent increases, three-year tenancies and landlord licensing. Letting agency fees will meanwhile be banned and a public database of rogue landlords and property agents created.

At first glance the manifesto appears a fusion of George Osborne’s catchy slogan-ism and established Labour policies for the squeezed middle classes. It gets more interesting when you discover the Coalition era reversals – including reinstating housing benefit for 18-21-year-olds, increasing Jobseeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit for those aged 18-24 and increasing Local Housing Allowance in line with average local rents. But will this be enough to restore trust among disillusioned voters who still feel betrayed by Nick Clegg? 

The pledge to create at least 10 new ‘Garden Cities’ in England, providing ‘tens of thousands of high-quality, zero-carbon homes, with gardens and shared green space, jobs, schools and public transport’ is bold but uninspiring. Mostly this is because it was pledged during the Coalition and went no-where, plus its not 100 per cent clear what a Garden City is in a Liberal Democrat mind beyond a New Town with some trees.

The manifesto becomes sharper at local authority level where council tax of up to 200 per cent may be levied on second homes and empty ‘buy-to-leave’ overseas investments. New powers will also penalise excessive land-banking by developers with planning permission. The crowning achievement is the proposal for a new National Wellbeing Strategy covering health, housing and the environment – with the fantastic outcome of housing finally being recognised as a mental health issue. A new five billion pound British Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank to promote low-carbon and sustainable development is a welcome bolt-on.

Verdict: The Liberal Democrats housing manifesto feel less like a strategic policy than the other parties’s and more like collection of nice-to-have stuff. These are the sort of things the Liberal Democrats could bargain for should they find themselves in another coalition. However the Conservatives went into the last election tactically expecting a coalition and may do so again.

If the Liberal Democrats win: check you haven’t poured yourself an Absinthe as you may be hallucinating.