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Labour vs Conservatives: Who has the right plan to end the UK housing crisis?

As the dust settles on the party conferences, Chartered Institute of Housing's Rachael Williamson gives her verdict on which party is saying all the right things to end the housing crisis

Conservatives' Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer of Labour went head to head in party conference speeches but which one tackled the housing crisis head on

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak are set to go head-to-head in a general election next year and housing will be a key political battleground. So how was the issue represented at the Tory and Labour party conferences? Image: Leon Neal / Carl Court / Getty Images

Housing was put firmly on the agenda at Labour Party Conference in Liverpool earlier this month but was disappointingly notable by its absence on the Conservative main stage. What can we learn from what was said, and not said?

The Conservative Party Conference

A recent Home Builders Federation (HBF) report showed that 78% agree the country is facing a significant housing crisis and that 68% believe building more homes is vital to resolving the housing crisis. Seventy-two percent think politicians are responsible for resolving shortage of homes. But the only mention of housing in the prime minister’s speech was a reference to house building at the new Euston terminus of HS2, whereas housing secretary Michael Gove gave it just a few lines in a speech that lasted 13 minutes (but no mention of homelessness, renter or leasehold reform).  

In contrast, housing was a hot topic on the fringe, with the ministerial team (Gove, housing and planning minister Rachel Maclean and homelessness minister Felicity Buchan) speaking at a number of panels and reaffirming the government’s commitment to a ‘long-term plan’, as well as progression of reforms to renting and leasehold. Former housing and planning minister Brandon Lewis also made an appearance, noting the government has nothing to offer first-time buyers and expressing some concerns about potential unintended consequences of the Renters Reform Bill. While I wasn’t at all the sessions, the gist of them seemed to be a consensus that the current housing system is broken and that there is no ‘silver bullet’ to fix it.

We’re calling on the prime minister to make sure everyone can afford to stay in their homes and pay for the essentials by:

  • Unfreezing Local Housing Allowance rates
  • Increasing Universal Credit to £120 a week for a single adult and £200 for a couple

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There was plenty of diagnosis of the problems (planning system, monopoly developers, lack of funding etc) but less on the solutions and how to manage the short and long-term tensions, though social housing was referenced by all as part of the answer. With more than 130,000 children in temporary accommodation and homelessness on the rise I was left wondering if government is focussed enough on who we’re failing while we continue to debate it. In the words of Brandon Lewis: “If we’re not delivering a way of seeing a roof over your head then what are we here for?” Of course, political instability hasn’t helped with this, with 15 housing ministers over the past 13 years.

In the final session I attended housing minister Rachel Maclean made clear that housing is fundamental to economic and social progress and that we need to just “build more bloody houses”. Let’s hope the current government can work together to follow through on this – it needs more than the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to make it happen.

The Labour Party Conference

The Labour conference was a different experience altogether, with housing and planning front and centre despite not being included as one of Labour’s five missions. The trilogy of speeches from Keir Starmer, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow housing secretary Angela Rayner recognised the central role that housing plays in providing a foundation for life. This was reinforced by messaging from the shadow ministerial team in the fringe sessions – Matthew Pennycook and Mike Amesbury.

Keir Starmer’s pledge to get Britain building again with 1.5 million homes over the next parliament was well received. The housing crisis needs bold and ambitious action to address it, so at CIH we really welcome the commitment to tackle it head-on with a housing recovery plan which reflects many of the asks in our housing manifesto.

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An effective planning system, backed with the right resources and skills strategy, is key to ensuring we have the right homes in the right places that people can afford – this should mean much more social housing. Angela Rayner committed Labour to delivering “the biggest boost in affordable and social housing in a generation”. A focus on devolution should help ensure targeted and community-centred investment which should in turn help to build consensus (tackling some of the NIMBY vs YIMBY debate). With the right infrastructure behind it a new towns programme should help address the huge deficit in truly affordable housing supply for this generation and the next, whilst supporting sustainable and holistic development.

Everyone should have the right to a secure, decent and affordable home so it was good to see a clear focus on renters as well as the next generation of homeowners, with a commitment to rental and leasehold reform as well as support for first time buyers. (The government has also indicated action on the private rented sector and leasehold).

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There was consensus at both conferences that housing should provide a foundation from which to build your life. But it was great to see it given the prominence it deserves by Labour. As always, the challenge is in the detail of implementation – and we need cross-party consensus to really crack this. And money. As deputy mayor for housing Tom Copley said, “you can’t build subsidised housing without subsidy”.

With the starting gun fired on the next election, let’s continue to ensure housing remains firmly on the political agenda, and that these promises are delivered.

Rachael Williamson is the Chartered Institute of Housing’s head of policy and external affairs.

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