While housing has not featured among the key missions of Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer, it is clear that it will be a key dividing line at the next election. In his speech to this week’s Labour Party conference, Starmer put housing front and centre of his party’s election offer, pledging to build a series of new towns to deliver 1.5 million homes.
The housing dividing line
The government’s housing record presents Labour with a clear dividing line at the next election. While the Conservatives pledged at the last election to increase building levels to 300,000 homes a year, the latest financial year has seen work commence on only 173,661 homes, due largely to both Liz Truss’s mini-budget and Sunak’s watering down of local housebuilding targets.
With public finances restricted, encouraging homebuilding is an effective lever to promote growth and improve the government’s finances. A housing boom would see increased cash flow from developers’ Infrastructure Levy contributions to improve local amenities, free up disposable incomes with an easing of price and rent inflation, and also reduce the £28bn spent by the government each year on housing benefit.
Meanwhile, the policy area is led by figures who are both reliable bruisers and potential targets for political attacks themselves: Angela Rayner and Michael Gove. While opponents view Rayner as gaffe-prone, Gove’s tenure in Tory governments over the past 13 years makes him a clear symbol of the party’s lack of delivery.
What’s more, rising house costs are a clear issue for all voters. Many of those on the housing ladder have been hit by mortgage increases in the aftermath of Truss’s mini-budget, and those locked out of homeownership are seeing the downstream consequences of this as both rents and house prices increase.
Several questions arise for how the housing election will play out, and mapping these is important to see how the coming months will turn out.
How will the ‘grey belt’ go down with voters?
Key to Starmer’s housing mission is the identification of the ‘grey belt’ – land used for car parks, ex-industrial sites and scrubland technically in the green belt but without any ecological value. This marks a clear attempt to counter the image of the green belt in voters’ minds as definitionally environmentally valuable land (which it is not).
Polling has shown that voters may support declassifying this land to build more homes. But the Conservatives and smaller parties will likely run a vocal campaign against this. Whether Starmer can win the argument on the grey belt will likely define how easy it is to fulfil his housing pledges.
Will the Lib Dems back the builders or the blockers?
At the Liberal Democrats’ conference a motion proposed by the leadership to scrap the party’s housing targets was defeated by a grassroots campaign from younger members. But Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidates are already campaigning against homes in target seats, and Ed Davey has already suggested that the green belt might be a red line in hypothetical coalition negotiations.
The Lib Dems have a choice between the national interest in building the homes the country needs, versus party interest in capitalising on the inconvenience of building new homes in their electoral patches.
Opposition to housebuilding may well help get the Lib Dems over the line in a handful of seats, particularly in ‘blue wall’ exurban areas which could be the likely site of Starmer’s new towns. If this pushes their number of MPs into the 30s or 40s, it may well make it more difficult for a homebuilding agenda to get through parliament.
What other housing policies will receive oxygen?
Building more homes is crucial to solving the crisis, but it is not a silver bullet. Social housing is needed for those who will struggle to afford the private rental sector. Housing finance requires reform to tackle price inflation. Existing homes need retrofitting to reduce heating costs and emissions. And residents in both private rental and leasehold housing are in dire need of stronger legal protections.
While Labour has committed to action in most of these areas, how quick and how far-reaching this is will depend on how effective campaigners are in highlighting their demands, and what housing issues the media chooses to cover.
How the housing election plays out will be crucial to the lives and livelihoods of the whole country. But Starmer’s mission will require substantial buy-in from voters and political elites; the extent to which this will happen is yet to be seen.