Labour Eyes UK’s Broken Homeownership Dream as Vote Clincher

With plans for a series of new towns and homebuilding on certain areas of the green belt, Labour is gunning on taking more political ground from Conservatives by focusing on policies aimed at tackling the UK’s housing shortage.

(Bloomberg) — With plans for a series of new towns and homebuilding on certain areas of the green belt, Labour is gunning on taking more political ground from Conservatives by focusing on policies aimed at tackling the UK’s housing shortage.

Opposition leader Keir Starmer made a series of pledges regarding housing in his speech at Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool on Tuesday. His promises add to commitments from Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves on Monday to ramp up housebuilding, ease planning rules and make it easier for first-time buyers to get on the housing ladder.

“We used to call it the dream of homeownership,” Starmer told the conference. “But look at Britain now — it has become a dream, it’s out of reach for millions and if we don’t take action it will only become more distant.”

Buttressed by polling giving his party a double-digit lead over Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s governing Conservatives for the past year, Starmer is increasingly portraying Labour as a government-in-waiting. The party’s polling advantage has been buoyed by a series of voter-friendly proposals, such as promising more affordable housing if it wins.

Starmer promised to build 1.5 million homes over Labour’s first term in office, if they win the election that’s expected to take place next year. That amounts to around 300,000 new homes a year — a target the Tories set in 2019 but fell short of in every subsequent year. 

In the face of a backbench revolt last December, Sunak’s government removed mandatory house-building targets for local authorities, a move that’s sparked concern that the aim of building 300,000 houses a year by the mid-2020s won’t be met.

Labour pledged to reinstate those local housing targets and to work with authorities to draw-up and agree to developments that have stalled. The party will recruit hundreds of extra housing planners and use call-in powers for councils failing to reach their targets. 

“The fact that the new housebuilding proposals are regarded as sufficiently integral to election policy to have been split across the two keynote speeches appears a clear statement of intent,” said Nigel Hugill, chief executive officer at regional developer Urban & Civic Plc. “Increasing housebuilding construction represents an economic imperative to lift economic growth.”

Read more: Labour to Fight UK Vote on Economy in Challenge to Tories

To be sure, some voters may resist any plans to allow construction on Britain’s green belt. Existing rules typically limit building on strips of countryside surrounding villages, towns and cities, a longstanding policy aimed at preventing urban sprawl.

More adults oppose rather than support changing planning laws to enable building on greenfield or rural land around the edges of large towns and major cities, according to a poll done exclusively for Bloomberg News by Deltapoll earlier this year.

“This doesn’t mean we’re tearing up the greenbelt,” Starmer said in his speech. “But where there are clearly ridiculous uses of it, disused car parks, dreary waste lands, not a green belt – a grey belt, sometimes within a city’s boundary, then this cannot be justified as a reason to hold our future back.”

Starmer said brownfield areas surrounding busy transport hubs will be prioritised for housing projects. To help more Brits onto the housing ladder, Labour will raise stamp duty on overseas buyers, allow first-time buyers to bid first for newly built homes and forge a mortgage guarantee scheme backed by the state for prospective homeowners struggling to save for large deposits required to get a mortgage. 

Broken Planning System

Labour, which says it is “backing the builders, not the blockers” would inherit a planning system dubbed as “broken” by many key players in the property industry should the party win the next general election. Taylor Wimpey Plc, one the UK’s biggest homebuilders, said this summer it has roughly 26,000 land plots representing 133 sites stuck in the planning system.

“The planning system is currently one of the biggest barriers to housing delivery,” said Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation. “Streamlining the process and ensuring there is capacity in planning departments, such that it doesn’t take years to get to the point where an approved application can start to be built, is essential.”

Read more: UK Home Buyers Thwarted by System That Can’t Build Enough Houses

Local authorities typically have eight weeks to make a decision, or up to 13 weeks for major housing projects. However, only two in 10 applications for major housing projects were resolved in that time between April and June, according to government statistics.

“The Conservative approach is more of a ‘carrot’ charm offensive to convince locals to accept development with beautiful design whereas the Labour Party are more ‘stick’ by bringing back mandatory housing targets,” said Jonathan Stoddart, co-lead of UK planning at broker CBRE. “To facilitate a fully functioning planning system, we need a bottom up and top down approach; both ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ are required.”

–With assistance from Andrew Atkinson.

(Updates with details of Labour’s announcement throughout)

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