The party conference season: reasons to be gloomy

Housing was a big issue on the Labour conference fringe last week, as it will be at the other party conferences. Quite rightly, every meeting on the issue called for more building. Even CPRE’s event was held jointly with the Federation of Master Builders.

I am pro-house building, but not at any price, and it was disappointing to hear fringe speakers and audiences uncritically parrot the anti-planning line pumped out in recent years by the Treasury and the free market think-tanks.

There was some support for more publicly funded building (alongside a resignation that there would be little spare money if Labour was elected). And there was cautious support for a more muscular approach towards land hoarders (a position similar to that of the Mayor of London). But most of what I heard could have been scripted by my favourite think-tank, Policy Exchange (who were kind enough to invite me to speak at their housing fringe).

Maybe this is because party conferences are increasingly the preserve of lobbyists (like me) rather than activists, with the development industry and its paid helps in the think-tanks particularly prominent. But whatever the reason, many of those I heard speak came out with the anti-planning, anti-countryside mantras with which we have grown familiar in recent years.

  • Only eight or 10 or 12 per cent of the English countryside is developed, so let’s build on more of it.
  • There is no shortage of land, just an artificial scarcity engineered by the planning system.
  • There is not enough brownfield land available for all the homes we need, therefore [massive non sequitur] we must build in the Green Belt.
  • If we release more land, the big house builders will build the homes we need.
  • We need the private sector to meet [implausibly] high housing targets, so it is inevitable that we will have to sacrifice a good deal of countryside.
  • And most of this will be in the south east, because that is what the market dictates.

And so on. I haven’t the strength to rebut these statements, but they were all influential on the conference fringe.

Labour introduced the modern planning system. It also played a vital role in creating the Green Belt. But many of those at the conference – happily not Hilary Benn or Roberta Blackman-Woods – seemed tired of the countryside and of planning. I was particularly struck by the fact that the only person I heard mention Danny Dorling’s supposedly influential book on housing, All that is Solid, which is certainly written from the Labour tradition, was me. I will post a blog on Dorling’s book shortly.

I am off to the Conservative Party conference tomorrow. The Conservatives are traditionally the countryside party. They are also the party of the national Green Belt circular, and the party that built 300,000 houses a year after the war, not simply by releasing land and hoping the private sector would do the rest, but by planning and largely funding the building.

I hope this legacy will be reflected on the conference fringe – in spite of the wealth and influence of the anti-planning lobby.

5 Responses to “The party conference season: reasons to be gloomy”

  1. 1 September 27, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    And still no Twitter or Facebook symbols … how can I spread the word? #tiredofasking Cathy Nicholls CPRE Somerset

    Original email:

  2. 3 Michael Monk September 28, 2014 at 8:54 am

    This post summarises the problem perfectly. Disappointing that so many in Government (and Opposition) take the simplistic approach of blaming someone else. In this case it’s environmentalists like CPRE and local councils.

  3. 4 andrew needham September 28, 2014 at 10:08 am

    First-time buyers in England under the age of 40 could buy a house at 20% below the market rate if the Conservatives are re-elected. The Conservative leader said a future government led by him would build 100,000 new homes for such people. They would be built on brownfield land already identified for development and exempt from some taxes, he said.

    Lets hear more.

  4. 5 Alex Hills October 1, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    I think it is time for us to be bold in the run up to the election to call for some measures that will make home more affordable by tackling two problems that are pushing up house prices. The problems are homes fit to live in lying empty because they are second homes or have been bought as a investment ( properties are worth more if there are not tenants living in them and a out of control by-to-let market. Any property that is left empty for more than 3 months should be subject to a yearly tax of 5% of its value. That should make empty homes less of a asset! Buy-to-let need to be made a less attractive investment, too often first time buyers are being forced out by buy-to-let investors paying above the asking price for a property without even seeing it. This is forcing up house prices. Reintroducing rent controls will stop local people being forced out of areas. Too many land lords are getting away charging a fortune for properties that are not fit to live in so stricter minimum standards that are better enforced are needed. This can be done by compulsory landlord registration which councils have the power to do now. However this needs to be backed up with high penalties for not registering and the councils being able to charge more for registration so the schemes are self financing. My suggestions may sound radical but they would be a lot cheaper and more effective then what the political parties are proposing at the moment. The trouble is I can not see the Conservative Party agreeing to rent controls, even though it is the right thing to do, on political dogma grounds.

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