Manifestos de-briefed

The parties have now launched their manifestos.  How do they compare?

The popular pastime of dismissing party manifestos as dull, little-read documents that say nothing very useful and never affect the result took a big knock in the last election, when social care funding proposals on pages 64-66 of the Conservatives’ document totally derailed the campaign and were widely identified as the reason they failed to secure an overall majority.

With that in mind, what is being offered on housing in December 2019? To start with the Conservatives, despite housing under Mrs May being the biggest domestic priority, it doesn’t feature in their top six ‘guarantees‘, with towns being mentioned in the introduction rather than housing.  The housing pledges start on page 29 of a 60 page manifesto.

The pledge with the biggest potential impact is proposing that “infrastructure – roads, schools, GP surgeries – comes before people move into new homes”. A £10bn ‘Single Housing Infrastructure Fund’ is mentioned to help this happen. The same pledge is repeated in the immigration section so we can be sure the Conservatives mean it.

In October the Minister Robert Jenrick proposed to beef up design guidance, and the manifesto now goes further to allow every “community” to set its own standards, allowing “residents” a say on development designs in their area: this is one of those pledges that could be far-reaching or insignificant. The Conservatives will also “expect all new streets to be lined with trees”.

Many other pledges have been inherited from the May era, including the housebuilding target of 300,000 homes a year (first made in the 2017 budget) which has an imprecise deadline of “by the mid-2020s”.

The Conservatives are back to giving priority to home ownership, reverting from a brief pivot to concentrating on rented homes during the May administration. Part of the manifesto pledges something that looks very like a reheated version of the failed Cameron era ‘starter homes’ policy (only with purchase prices a third under market value rather than 20%, and with the discount being retained when the property is sold). There is also talk of help to raise a deposit, and an attempt to fix problems with shared ownership tenure by creating a single standard for all providers.

For the private rented sector, the Conservatives commit to removing ‘no fault’ eviction and allowing tenants’ deposits to transfer between landlords. The manifesto gets a little confused when it commits to protect tenants from rogue and bad landlords, while also giving good landlords stronger eviction powers. Another very vague pledge refers to making the planning system “simpler for the public and small builders”.

Labour’s housing pledges are actually even further back within their manifesto than the Tories – starting on page 77 – although Jeremy Corbyn’s foreword does say “I am not prepared to continue to see more families without a proper home”.

One passage explains Labour’s underlying view on the subject: “too many people are being denied their right to a good home by our housing system that treats homes as financial assets rather than places to live.” Council and social housing is a clear priority, and Labour sees the main responsibility for building them as belonging to local and national government.

Labour’s language when stating its policy towards developers always sounds harsh, with pledges couched in terms of compulsion and tough regulation. A good instance is where developers are given notice of “new ‘use it or lose it’ taxes on stalled housing developments”. But the 2019 manifesto authors have excised anti-developer diatribes present in its 2017 predecessor (for example, a reference to “developers’ profit taking precedence over community priorities”).

In some areas there is a striking consensus. Labour’s pledge to “make brownfield sites the priority for development and protect the green belt” is almost word for word the same as the Conservatives. Likewise both parties commit to prevent new houses being sold leasehold when they could be freehold, although Labour goes slightly further to support leasehold enfranchisement.

But Labour has made some pledges responding to left-populist campaigning, as for instance the “levy on overseas companies buying housing”, and powers to tax properties empty for over a year. Labour would also revoke the permitted development powers to change offices to housing using prior approval.

Labour’s newer affordable housing policies seem to be refined versions of policies developed by Sadiq Khan as Mayor. Several times Labour mentions that housing affordability must be assessed as a proportion of local incomes; this now feeds into a new form of discount home ownership for first-time buyers, about which no other details are given. As with the Mayor, so nationally: Labour would insist that social housing regeneration programmes are approved in ballots.

The “rent controls” promised for private tenants turn out to be a cap on rent rises to the level of inflation (although local government would get more power if it wanted); Labour also pledges open-ended tenancies, nationwide landlord licensing and minimum standards for properties.

As Jo Swinson is now admitting, Liberal Democrat manifestos are still freed from the burden of possibly having to be implemented. Their eye-catching pledge is a £130bn fund for capital spending, which will be used to build the 300,000 homes per year including 100,000 social rented homes.

Taking the view that the word ‘manifesto’ is now associated only with broken promises, the Brexit Party has instead issued a contract. On the very last page are pledges to simplify planning consent for brownfield sites and for outline consent, allow more flexibility on housing mix and the number of affordable homes, and increase infrastructure grants “to kick start schemes of marginal viability.”

Of all the parties, the Green Party has housing highest up its priorities, and is also calling for the most fundamental change: they would like the planning system to prioritise renovation and improvement of existing buildings over new build which uses up more resources. Any private development would have to meet the Passivhaus standard, and they also want new developments only allowed in walking distance of shops and schools or near public transport.

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