Local elections are a tough time for local councillors. They see the work they have done almost ignored by both voters and the media. Most votes cast in May will reflect the national state of politics and the media will be busy projecting the results onto a parliamentary battlefield, trying to predict who will form the next Government. National parties use it as a chance to road test national messages superimposed on a local context almost as an afterthought.
As the local elections hot up this month, it is good to see that the main parties are all seeing housing as a key issue. It hardly needs saying that housing and planning are a contested place at the local level.
The first one that caught my eye was Liberal Democrats proposal for ‘street votes’ described as “A liberal solution to the housing crisis.” Apparently street votes are not just about streets, as “Street votes will give locals true control over development in their area.” The basis for this seems to be that with more control, people will back housing in their areas. I’m not so sure and not even sure that this is either liberal or democratic, as it seems to give people who already have homes a veto over those who don’t. At the extreme, those who own houses can stop new homes being built for those who are homeless. Such votes could ensure that the so-called ‘silent’ majority can demonstrate support for new homes over the heads of the louder opponents. I can’t say I’m convinced.
So far Labour’s big announcement has been a promise to insulate 19 million homes. To date they have been rather coy about how this will be funded and although have used this pledge to encourage a vote in the local elections this May, the funding mechanism will have to wait for the general election manifesto. Labour has also pledged to help more people to get on the housing ladder with a mortgage guarantee scheme and a first choice on new homes to local first-time buyers. Lisa Nandy has also been actively promoting the building of more council housing although it has not featured yet in the local election campaign.
The Conservatives have not launched a housing campaign as such; however, Michael Gove has been active on a range of issues including promoting greater quality in social housing. He caught some attention with an article for Shelter and the think tank Bright Blue concluding “That the current housing model – from supply to standards and the mortgage market – is broken, we can all agree. That change is necessary is undeniable. We are bringing about change – and we are determined to see it through.” He sees the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill as a major help in increasing housing supply. If I was writing this a week ago, that might have been the most significant Conservative statement until the Prime Minister’s interview with Conservative Home. He explained why he had ditched housing targets, saying “What I heard consistently, particularly from our councillors and our members, was what they did not want was a nationally imposed top-down set of targets telling them what to do. That it was not a particularly Conservative thing to do and doesn’t recognise that all parts of our country are different.” The Government has confirmed that it is still committed to 300,000 homes nationally, however it is unclear what the mechanisms are for ensuring that this is delivered at the local level, because any national figure is generated from the sum of all the housing built locally. Sometimes it feels like there is a place which is ‘national’ not covered by any local authorities where the gap in the figures can be filled, like a housing equivalent of dark matter.
It is great to see that housing is back on the agenda but it’s still not clear that any party has a strategy for meeting the housing needs of the nation.