Labour's housing targets are the least ambitious but most realistic - Bartek Staniszewski

Just looking at the numbers, it may seem that Labour’s housing plans are the least ambitious of the three major parties. The Tories promised to average 320,000 new homes a year – almost 100,000 more than they managed in 2020, the Conservatives’ most successful year in terms of house building numbers since they came into power in 2014.

The Liberal Democrats were even more ambitious, targeting 380,000 homes a year – a number of new homes delivered that this country has not seen since the tower block building programme of the 1960s. By contrast, Labour’s plans are relatively more modest, only promising to average 300,000 new homes a year. However, it is the only one of those parties that could hope to deliver on its target.

Labour’s target is still ambitious when the UK’s historical house building rates are taken into account. The last time we managed to build 300,000 homes a year was in the 1970s. Getting back to those levels – especially without sacrificing housing quality – will require the Government to pull every lever available to it, but only Labour seemed willing to do that.

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Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats promised to build new towns and social housing. Both of those are good first steps, but building new towns will be very difficult, especially in areas where people want to live, and the UK already has one of the highest proportions of social housing stock of any European country. These two steps alone will not do.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner during a visit to a housing development. PIC: Joe Giddens/PA WireLabour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner during a visit to a housing development. PIC: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner during a visit to a housing development. PIC: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Both Conservatives and Labour also promised planning reform. This, too, is a noble ambition. The planning system is generally held to be the single biggest cause behind the UK’s housing crisis.

Getting just the initial planning permission for a housing development takes, on average, 52 weeks, and costs £125,000. It requires 30 different assessments to take place before the application is submitted.

Even then, 14 per cent of applications are rejected. But reform was tried before. Boris Johnson promised “the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War.” This quickly petered out due to a lack of political capital and the sheer scale of the challenge. Successful planning reform will be difficult, and, even if successful, will take years.

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But the new Government also has other tricks up its sleeves.

First, it promises to release low-quality green-belt land for development – something that the other two parties have explicitly ruled out. But, without building on the green belt, it will be impossible to adequately improve the housing supply in some of this country’s most unaffordable towns and cities, such as London, Oxford and Bristol. Developing on just the green belt land within walking distance of train stations could provide space for over two million homes.

Second, Labour promises to award more funding to planning authorities, which should accelerate the planning approval process. This should not be excessively costly – planning is only around 0.4 per cent of local authorities’ total expenditure. The local authorities in question will be further incentivised to accelerate their planning processes as Labour also promises to restore the local authority housing targets that the Tories abolished in late 2022.

Bartek Staniszewski is a senior research fellow at the Bright Blue think tank.

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