The fringe guides at this year’s Labour and Conservative Party Conferences featured a striking number of discussions on housing – underlining its currency in the political hallways and amongst those who seek to influence them.
Of those debates we were able to get to, there was much consensus around just how important solving the housing shortfall would be. But beyond this, two consistent, concerning themes emerged.
The first was that the debate doesn’t really seem to be moving on. All panellists were good at stating the well-established obstacles to building more houses in our cities, such as NIMBYism and a lack of council freedoms. But few could offer any ideas as to how to overcome or mitigate these problems in a practical way. There’s no doubt the issue is complex, and will require some politically tough decisions, but the conferences felt like missed opportunities to move beyond rhetoric towards a clear plan for action.
The second theme was that there was no discussion of geography in the debate – nor any acknowledgement that housing pressures vary enormously up and down the country. As we’ve shown in the past, the UK housing ‘crisis’ – by which we mean an acute shortfall of house building to meet local needs – is most markedly focused in the Greater South East of England.
In Oxford, for example, the average house costs 15 times the average annual earnings, while in Hull this number is five. Housing is one of the biggest threats to the future economic prosperity of Oxford. In Hull it is not. Building more homes in Hull will do little to help the city’s economic performance, nor the affordability problems further south – other, properly targeted measures, will be far more important for Hull’s success.
To be fair, the lack of bullish, solutions-focused debate at these fringe events largely reflected the heel-dragging we have seen on the housing issue on both sides of politics. Yes, both Labour and the Conservatives have announced policies to encourage the building of hundreds of thousands of new homes if they win the next Election. Typically, these announcements are accompanied with statements about releasing public land or building on brownfield post-industrial sites. But these sites often bear no relation to how affordability problems play out across the country, and so are an ill fit for addressing the housing shortages that cause the problem in the first place.
We need to build new homes. And it was heartening to see so many people coming together across the Labour and Conservative conferences to discuss and reinforce this urgency. But if all the conversations continue to focus on the problem, and not the solution, they will amount to nothing more than hot air. It’s time for all the parties to step up to the challenge.
Look out over the coming weeks, as we begin setting out the practical steps to solve the UK’s housing crisis.
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