Sir Keir Starmer has told the BBC that a Labour government would take ‘tough decisions’ and ‘back the builders, not the blockers’ as the Labour leader attempts to set out policy proposals that will address voter priorities.
Amid the rising cost of housing in many parts of the UK and the chronic shortage of units, Starmer has promised that, with him as Prime Minister, local councils would be given more power to build on the greenbelt. The greenbelt is a protected area enacted by town planning policy, and, under current rules in England, new constructions can only be authorised in exceptional circumstances. The policy is also an attempt to halt ‘urban sprawl,’ especially in London, where the capital has continued to expand in size as transport links and governmental structures have altered to incorporate the leafy suburbs.
By committing to relax planning restrictions and reinstate housing targets, the Labour leader is attempting to tackle a glaring issue that the thirteen-year Conservative government has failed to address. Indeed, previous attempts to liberalise planning for the building of housing have been consistently met with backbench rebellion within the Tory party. Most recently, Rishi Sunak was forced to relinquish the 2019 Conservative manifesto pledge that stated the target of building '300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s' would see 'at least a million more homes' by the next Parliament. Sunak attempted to bring in binding housing targets in December but capitulated after one hundred MPs were threatening rebellion. Even the ex-Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, stated back in May 2022 that the government would 'miss their 300,000-homes-a-year manifesto pledge by a country mile.' The Home Builders Federation has warned that, as a result of this policy abandonment, the rate of homes being built will fall to its lowest level since the second world war.
Any attempt to tackle Britain's housing crisis will fail without party unity. It was ex-PM Liz Truss that was determined to scrap 'Stalinist' building targets. However, the current state of Britain's housing crisis, and the government's shortcomings in reaching its own targets, are increasingly being affected by the issue of NIMBYism. This acronym stands for 'not in my backyard' and characterises a significant amount of the local opposition to housing and construction projects from both residents and MPs alike. This can be for a variety of reasons, including the desire for the preservation of distinct places of historical and cultural interest, the protection of areas of natural beauty, environmental concerns, and homeowners' fears that ever more construction projects will hit the value of their owned assets.
Yet there is a creeping sense of hypocrisy from some MPs. On a recent episode of the BBC's Thursday night political panel show Question Time, Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran addressed the destructive effects that Britain's housing crisis is having on the structure of society. She stated that 'in Oxford, we're seeing a lot of this. What's happening is that young people just move out. They move away. They want to stay and start a family. They are putting off having children in the first place, then they move away. It's breaking our society that we're not getting this right.'
However, Layla Moran has consistently been the champion of the NIMBYs within her constituency, rejecting potential housing developments. Directly opposed to Starmer's current position, back in 2017, Moran stated that she was 'against the proposed developments on the Green Belt' and that 'unmet housing need alone does not constitute an "exceptional need" to build in the Green Belt.'
This illustrates just one element of the political quagmire regarding housing building in Britain. Back in 2017, Moran was doing her job, representing her residents who profusely rejected the proposed housing development in their local area, proudly defending 'the risk of urban sprawl with the distinctiveness of the three villages being lost.' But politicians and citizens alike must ask themselves what kind of society they want to live in, and what needs to be prioritised with regards to dwellings. The incontrovertible fact, however, is that Britain desperately needs more housing, especially as the Home Office fears that net migration is thought to reach one million this year.
With Starmer's recent commitment, it seems that national conversation may be being converted into future policy proposals that can and will be met. The heavyweight political journalist, Andrew Marr, has stated that future governments should be bolder with their plans, suggesting the prospect of new 'new towns' much like what the post-war Labour governments undertook after the 1946 and 1948 Town and Country Planning Acts, which transformed planning development, democratised the use of land and attempted to tackle the widespread need for large-scale post-war rebuilding projects. This led to a variety of new, independent towns, including Stevenage, Crawley, Milton Keynes, and Peterborough.
According to statistics from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, just 8.7% of the land is in developed use in England, with 91.1% in non-developed use, leaving just 0.2% of land classed as vacant. The notion that England is overcrowded is a falsification. The population lives in heavily-dense areas, with a combined 65% of all English land being owned by either the aristocracy and gentry, corporations and oligarchs, and City bankers. A further 17% is unaccounted for. This, along with the issue of NIMBYism, reveals significant difficulties for elected politicians in solving the crisis.
Therefore, Starmer's commitment to relax planning restrictions and give local councils more power to build on the Green Belt is politically understandable. Regularly criticised for acting nebulously with regard to policy, the Labour leader's plan risks making the government look divided, especially as Conservative MPs and councillors began quarrelling amongst each other after developers moved into their constituencies.
The plan also illustrates the shifting tide of housing within British politics. As John Oxley pointed out, until recently, rising housing prices were regularly praised by governments, with politicians using the growing figures to illustrate 'prosperity for middle England.' Fast forward to 2023, the political map and social consequences of the cost of housing have transformed. The issue is now a 'mainstream concern for anyone under the age of 40.' This is a huge section of the electorate, which Starmer realises, and has skilfully chosen to address. Many younger voters will not forgive a party that failed to deliver on housing, with Oxley adding that 'it is hard to see how the Tories remain a potent political force if homeownership becomes impossible for people born in the 1990s or later'.
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