“Mr Sprawl” Miliband abandons localism – but will he deliver good housing?

Ravilous Labour New TownsSomething big needs saying about housing. I guess Ed Miliband thinks he has achieved it. Maybe, but when I read his speech it struck me as bluster and a recipe for chaos, peppered with some rather cute ideas.

We need new homes. We also need good planning. The success or failure of new towns, urban extensions and housing estates depends on location, fortune, ambition and leadership. But above all those towns that work are a triumph of planning.

For every housing scheme that has been an outstanding success, another has failed. For every booming new town like Milton Keynes or Welwyn Garden City, there is a Cumbernauld or Corby.

The failure of Labour’s eco towns initiative should give Ed Miliband pause for thought. But every politician loves to throw out a planning initiative or three when there is an election coming.

He should be especially cautious as the new towns nudging into view are little more than commutervilles. Mayfield in Sussex, Meriden on the HS2 line in the Midlands, maybe even Northstowe in Cambridgeshire, are exurbia personified.

I am not against new towns. I am a fan of Milton Keynes. But I hate lacklustre developments that are not great places to live. And I don’t ever think that the decisions should be in the hands of ministers rather than local councils. Localism is not a word that crosses the lips of a great centralist like Ed Miliband.

What of Labour’s other planning announcements?

I give thumbs up to councils ramping up charges where developers are failing to build on land that is has planning permission. But I am wary about compulsory purchasing undeveloped land and passing it to a new developer. Technically, this will remove the land from the council’s five year land supply and, under national planning rules, will lead to many councils facing an unplanned free-for-all in house building.

I am even more nervous about his plans to allow towns and cities to expand into their hinterlands whatever their neighbouring councils think. This is not so much a “duty to cooperate” as a “duty to conflict.” This “right to grow” will create a new divisive war between urban and rural areas, and undermine localism.

The housing situation is desperate and needs clear thinking. What it doesn’t need is a new government creating conflict. If ministers impose new towns, that is what we will get.

A million new homes will be a very good thing, but Labour has yet to say how they will be funded. Just bullying the private sector to get more built will not suffice. The government will need to dip into its pockets or let councils borrow more if the target is to be remotely achievable. And these houses need to be affordable too, Ed said nothing about that.

But I will take my hat off to Ed Miliband for one thing. He made housing a centre point of his speech.

Housebuilding barely figured in the Coalition Agreement. If we are in coalition after 2015, we must ensure that it is brought to centre stage.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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  • But Andy, I agree that you have to be careful with solutions for housing shortage, but we have to acknowledge that the Coalition / Lib Dem solution has failed so far, and we should be looking elsewhere for answers.

  • Helen Dudden 27th Sep '13 - 11:47am

    I agree and I am one of those failures. Still waiting to move from my flat . Cold and damp is not good for anyone even us so-called pensioners, makes you feel very miserable to be old.

  • Matt (Bristol) 27th Sep '13 - 11:47am

    All of this and other commentary on this site does show that Milliband may (so far) finally be beginning to succeed in one thing: he is beginning to dictate the terms of the debate, and make it about the cost of living whilst giving himself a coherent argument at the same time: house prices, wage freezes and energy prices are hitting the whole country hard, and the coalition is not doing anything effective because it will not take on vested interests.

    Do the LDs have a counter argument or an alternative strategy?
    Can the Tories do anything that might shift Miliband back onto the defensive, or are they simply going to keep repeating ‘Labour messed it up last time, you can’t trust them’?
    Has Miliband’s image as a backroom policy wonk, a ditherer and a pontificator from earlier in the Parliament become so entrenched he cannot get his new message through?

    This is where the battleground now lies for Labour.

  • Helen Dudden 27th Sep '13 - 11:48am

    I should be cold, be then I suppose it is what you see it as.

  • Richard Church 27th Sep '13 - 11:57am

    Allowing existing towns and cities to grow can be better than building new towns. Existing towns often need the investment in infrastructure and regeneration that growth will bring and they provide settled established communities within which people can settle. Building new towns in the wrong places can accentuate the decline of established places.

    Existing towns are often constrained by tight local authority boundaries. At some stage in this country we are going to need to review local authority boundaries that have been unchanged for 40 years while towns and cities have grown into their hinterland. Better to make the boundaries fit the current reality than try and force local authorities into uneasy co-operation.

  • Matt (Bristol) 27th Sep '13 - 1:27pm

    Many people who have voted LD in the past (including me) will be hoping, even if the solutions he proposes are flawed, that Miliband succeeds in creating a debate or new range of policies that result in someone, anyone finally driving down house prices and increasing the amount of social housing. Housing provision for new-build in this country is simply carp (rearrange that word). Kitchens you can’t effectively cook a meal in, poor ventillation, low ceilings, bad landlords (including councils). The old-style council housing of the 30s to the 50s knocks almost anything procudced since that time into a cocked hat. If Miliband succeeds, particularly if he succeeds with the LibDems opposing him, I and others may well vote for him (I’m still not sure whether I’m voting Labour or LibDem this time around).

  • Tony Greaves 27th Sep '13 - 4:31pm

    There is no chance that there will ever be a substantial and sustained fall in house prices. There could however be a fall in rents (needs rent control brought back for most private rented properties) and a lot of council/housing association building. These would help to stop house prices doubling again in the next 10-15 years, might even help hold them steady for a decade (which would be a cut in real terms).

    Tony Greaves

  • Dominic Curran 27th Sep '13 - 5:28pm

    i largely agree witht he author. However, he should be careful of placing too much faith in localism. Councillors will often take decisions based on whether they think they can get re-elected if they decide on a particular course of action. Even if the majority of people in an area support more homes generally, they can be very vocal in opposing them locally, and councillors will often listen to those who shout the loudest, whether it be a site allocation in a local plan, or at planning committtee. Localism has helped plan for many tens of thousands fewer homes in local plans compared to regional spatial strategies, and if it wasn’t for PINS forcing councils to be honest about their 5 year land supplied in their local plans, even fewer homes would be planned for.
    At least new towns gets over the whole debate by CPOing a chunk of land, ideally where very few people live, and starting again.

  • Andy Boddington wrote, “A million new homes will be a very good thing, but Labour has yet to say how they will be funded.” Ed Miliband only needs to read our policy paper “Decent Homes for All” to discover how to finance them. In it we say that we will bring the Public Sector Net Debt (PSND) into line with definitions of other EU countries so that Local Authorities can borrow to build social housing. We also state that we will use Quantitative Easing to finance the building of more social housing for organisations such as Housing Associations.

    While the Coalition government has failed to get many houses built the Liberal Democrats could get the Coalition government to build more houses and move towards our own target of 300,000 house a year.

  • Richard Dean 27th Sep '13 - 10:50pm

    @Simon Shaw

    Actually, economics text books would probably say instead that prices are a symptom of the balance between supply and “real” demand, ie,. demand backed up with the ability to pay.

    Those same text books might say that, if real demand rises, both supply and prices will rise too. Hence the worry about a new bubble fuelled by the Chancellor’s actions.

    Using those text books, we might conclude that the way to increase supply while reducing the price is to reduce the cost to the builder, so that the builder can make the same profit even if the price is lower. For example by more efficient technology, or perhaps a less obstructive (and so less costly) planning system.

    Or perhaps we should make it more costly for the builder to not build, so that those holding real estate are encouraged to build and sell. The text books seem silent on this one, but I can imagine it crashing the land sales market, and resulting in redundancies as some builders end up losing money and going out of business.

  • @Simon Shaw:

    @Tony Greaves
    There is no chance that there will ever be a substantial and sustained fall in house prices.”
    I don’t see why not. Current prices are merely a symptom of an imbalance between supply and demand.”

    Possibly because no government in living memory has ever genuinely had the real will or even wish to correct the imbalance?”

  • I think people should take note that a divergence is developing between what political leaders are saying and what their own councils doing or trying to do. It exposes the rhetoric from the reality.

    I think councils, particularly labour councils have been seeking the powers to borrow to finance housebuilding programmes. I haven’t yet heard any nod in that direction from most parties.

    There is an equally valid point about the quality of new housing from both living standards and sustainability. At this, I should point out there needs to be consideration about who needs to be build the houses. Perhaps this is ideology but I don’t see local councils building homes which have little life after 5 years due to their needs to be locally accountable and stricter regulations. This is another question to be addressed.

    Finally, and I think the tories have made a start in this debate, there is a question about how to support new construction with mooted ideas like bringing empty office blocks into residential use, supporting self-build and other ideas which again some councils have sought to do.

    I think some of the older libdem policy documents do stress the neccessary localism which is needed for housing policy. I’m not sure current policy is quite there yet.

  • @ Andy Boddington

    “And these houses need to be affordable too, Ed said nothing about that.”

    Of all the criticisms of Miliband’s speech that is the least of my concern. Housing process are too high because there is a shortage of supply. Get the supply up (and improve the movement in the existing stock so better use is made) and we will start to see possibilities with affordability.

    If we can get a decent amount built then we will start to see price falls in real terms, it won’t be instant but it will work.

    @ Matt (Bristol)

    If you follow discussion on LDV you will see housing is often discussed. There are many better proposals to those that Labour has tried in the past, which is presumably all Miliband has to offer.

    In relation to energy you won’t find much discussion of it as most LibDems are in favour of the energy policies that are driving up prices.

    @ Tony Greaves

    You just have to run to a legislative solution that will produce side effects that will be worse. Supply is the problem, if we don’t get supply up we will have worse problems well before 10 years. Rent controls will not fit a supply issue, however they will over time ensure there is a severe lack of supply in the rented sector.

  • @ Tony Greaves

    “There is no chance that there will ever be a substantial and sustained fall in house prices.”

    That is only true if you are only thinking in nominal terms, we will see real terms prices drop as wages rise and house process stay put.

  • Paul Griffiths 29th Sep '13 - 9:59am

    Expanding towns and cities may incur less opposition from neighbouring councils than Mr Boddington suggests. More rural authorities may actually prefer their new housing to abut the urban boundary rather than be sited in their own smaller towns and villages.

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