Labour wants to portray itself as the party of housing. But to succeed, Keir Starmer will have to manage nymbies on his backbenches, showing he’s serious about building new homes, writes Elena Siniscalco
If you listen to politicians on both the left and the right, you’d be excused for thinking a race to build new homes is on. Just yesterday, London Mayor Sadiq Khan was boasting about the rate of new affordable homes being built in the capital in 2022. And over the weekend, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove was having a fight with councils in the Peak District over their failure to approve enough new homes, threatening them of revoking their planning powers.
Both parties have finally started to appreciate that housing will be a key voting issue at the next general election, and are wrestling to position themselves as the “party of housing”. The Conservatives lost credibility when Rishi Sunak conceded to his backbenches and agreed to scrap housing targets at the end of last year. He later admitted he did it because Tory councillors and members were against the targets – helping create the image, in many voters’ minds, of the Tory party as the nimby club par excellence.
This perception alienates voters who suffer most from the consequences of the housing crisis, including younger people. A report from King’s College London titled “Are Millennials really killing the Tory party?” found housing policies overly supporting older voters made younger generations shy away from voting Tory.
Against this backdrop, Keir Starmer is keen to make clear he’s the man who’ll fix the housing crisis. He promised he would reintroduce housing targets if his party got into government. He would also give more power to local authorities, incentivising them to work together on new projects at a regional level through the promise of fresh infrastructure as a reward.
Lisa Nandy, the shadow Levelling Up Secretary, has been on his side arguing Labour doesn’t only want to build more affordable homes and help renters, but is also the party of first-time buyers. Nandy wants to take them by the hand with a mortgage guarantee scheme to help them get on the housing ladder. Through these promises, Labour is trying to lure in young professionals who might have previously voted Conservative but are now feeling fed up with the lack of opportunities in the housing market.
But to be credible, Starmer must prove there are no nimbies on his backbenches threatening to force him into the same position as Sunak if he makes it to No10. Or, if he concedes they will always exist, he must show he’s still unmoved by them. He might have to give this strategy a first try soon, after Rupa Huq, the Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton, celebrated the ditching of a plan for almost 500 new homes in her area on Twitter. The development would have comprised six buildings, bringing 477 new homes to Ealing. It would have also brought new offices to the council, which has instead blocked it and decided to retrofit the existing office spaces.
Huq told City A.M. that “of course” she supports “well-thought-out high quality housing” that could help the local families living in overcrowded flats, but claimed the “price point and configuration” of these homes was wrong. She said it was “just a private development by a company looking to make a fast buck”.
But the damage is done – and it goes beyond angry comments from the Twitter bubble. Calling good news the blocking of new homes that would have been built on a car park is a bad look for a party attempting to portray itself as the party of housing. Ben Everitt, a Conservative MP on the Housing Committee, pointed out the new flats would have been on a brownfield site. “Of course they should build them”, he said.
Only 1066 new homes were built in Ealing last year. The average cost of a home in the area is almost £555,000, making it “completely inaccessible” for most families, according to Tom Spencer, director of Research at campaigning group PricedOut. “Preventing developments like this has a significant effect in worsening the conditions for those desperate to find a place to live”, said Spencer.
Of course a balance must be struck between tossing concrete onto communities and building sustainable and affordable new homes, suited for the local community. But at the moment we’re not doing either. As most politicians have now recognised, there’s no way out of the housing crisis without increasing supply. MPs like Huq, on both sides of the political spectrum, are simply picking up the wrong battle.
Starmer publicly said his party was prepared to take on people who try to ward off housing plans in their local areas. If these people end up being his own MPs, he should be prepared for a big headache pre-elections.