Building houses out of hot air? How the 2017 party manifesto housing plans stack up

By Paul Hickman Professor of Social Policy and Housing at Sheffield Hallam University

The UK is a facing a housing crisis. Whichever party wins the election will be confronted by numerous problems including: a lack of affordable housing in many of parts of the country; the challenges associated with housing an ageing population;  a housing stock which is showing signs of obsolescence and fatigue; a highly unregulated and unchecked private rental sector; the challenge of ensuring that younger households are able to access affordable; high quality housing and home ownership; and, increasing levels of homelessness and rough sleeping.

One of the tasks of the newly formed ESRC funded UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, which Sheffield Hallam University is part of, will be to suggest ‘solutions’ to these complex problems during its work over the next five years. But what are the solutions currently being offered by the four largest parliamentary parties in their manifestos?

The Conservatives have the most ambitious pledge – to build 500,000 new homes between 2020 and 2022, on top of the existing pledge to build one million by 2020. However, this goal appears fanciful as the building industry will simply not be able to build the numbers required, especially in a post-Brexit world. The Lib-Dems have committed to building 300,000 homes a year for sale and rent, with 100,000 of these made affordable and energy efficient, while Labour have committed to building more than one million new homes. Rather astutely, all parties have avoided setting precise timetables for their building programmes. The SNP has committed to continuing to roll-out its existing building  programme, which has resulted in Scotland having the highest building rate in the UK.

Rather belatedly in the case of the Conservatives, all four partners identify a key role for local authorities in terms of increasingly supply, although the Tories do so only begrudgingly: only those councils who will build high-quality, sustainable and integrated communities will be allowed to build.

Consistent with the high priority it has given to housing, Labour has another welcome suggestion for facilitating the creation of new housing supply: the establishment of a new ‘Department for Housing’ which would be tasked with improving the number, standards and affordability of homes. Also welcome are the Lib-Dems suggestions that a housing and infrastructure development bank be established and councils should be given the power to penalise developers when they have not built for three years on land where they have planning permission.

In terms of ensuring that the existing supply of affordable housing is not denuded, Labour suggest suspending the right-to-buy unless councils can prove they have a plan to replace homes on a like-for-like basis, while the Lib-Dems will end the voluntary right-to-buy for housing associations. The SNP’s manifesto makes no reference to right-to-buy for the simple reason that it was abolished in Scotland in 2016. The Conservatives manifesto’s silence on the subject is welcome, reinforcing the view that extending right-to-buy for housing associations is no longer one of its key policy priorities.

After years of neglect by successive governments the issue of housing supply is now firmly on the political agenda and all the parties have ambitious plans to solve the problem. Whether these plans are realistic or workable, particularly in the context of some of the targets that have been set, is another matter and only time will tell what the next five years will bring.

Paul Hickman is Professor of Social Policy and Housing at Sheffield Hallam University and co-director of the Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies. He has undertaken research on a range of subjects including: housing benefit; welfare reform; housing improvement and the Decent Homes Programme: the private rented sector; residential mobility and immobility; community participation; neighbourhood infrastructure and social interaction; housing management; housing and regeneration; social enterprise; and French housing policy and practice.

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