Ed Miliband’s pledge to build new homes on “a grand scale” was the focus of attention for the Builders Merchants’ Federation (BMF) at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton.
Miliband annonced that the next Labour Government would tackle the housing crisis by building 200,000 homes each year.
His solution is to set an ambitious target of building new homes at twice the current rate annually between 2015 and 2020. To do this, he has big ideas on un-used land, local authorities, and planning regulations that his team is formulating into policy for the 2015 Manifesto.
Shadow Housing Minister, Jack Dromey MP, met with BMF managing director John Newcomb and policy manager Brett Amphlett to explain the thinking behind the moves. He told the BMF that Labour “will be good for building, and building on a grand scale”.
Labour’s most controversial idea is to force developers who hold sites with planning permission already granted to start building – or face new controls, fines or possible confiscation.
This “Use It or Lose It” policy is aimed at property developers who do not start work onsite straightway. Labour wants to entice speculators to release land before government steps in to force their hand. Dromey will look at giving local authorities new powers to compel owners to sell. Any new powers are likely to include the ability to assemble smaller parcels of land to make the combined area more economically feasible and financially viable to develop properly.
He added that he wanted to reduce the upfront cost of land and have more SMEs involved in tackling the housing crisis.
According to Labour, the Duty to Co-operate on local authorities in the Localism Act 2011 is not working as it should. This is exemplified by the so-called Stevenage factor. The town needs more homes and an application for 3,600 homes to the west of town is the subject of a long-running disagreement. The project straddles council boundaries and local factors – like school places and legal challenges involving the Borough, surrounding districts and Hertfordshire County Council – have delayed construction work.
Jack Dromey MP told the BMF that the Duty to Co-operate concept is “vacuous” and will be re-examined. His Party will consider whether towns like Stevenage should be given a “Right to Grow”. The BMF learned this means altering the balance of planning permission in favour of towns in relation to land bordering an urban area which is currently under the control of a shire county.
Newcomb welcomed Labour’s desire to address the housing shortfall but says they have to strike the correct balance between compulsion and encouragement. “As a country, we are building fewer than half the number of homes needed to meet population, demographic and lifestyle changes, but striking the correct the correct balance between compulsion and encouragement of landowners is more crucial than ever.
“Statutory powers like Compulsory Purchase Orders or charges and fines are easy options that risk antagonising the customers of merchants at a time when BMF members are seeing on-the-ground activity getting going again,” he said.
Amphlett said: “With 20 months until the General Election, it is clear that building new homes, and planning permission necessary to have housing completed, is a distinct battleground between political parties. Conservatives favour Localism whereas Labour believes in a more prescribed approach.”