Ross Clark Ross Clark

Don’t trust Labour to build houses

Credit: Getty Images

Could a promise of more housebuilding win an election, or does the Nimby vote still rule the shires? Labour, it seems, has decided the former. The Times reports this morning that it has settled on a strategy of unashamedly promising more house-building, including on the green belt, after research by an outside organisation revealed that people on the party’s list of most winnable seats are strongly in favour of greater housebuilding. It is a long way from the Labour party of Tony Blair and John Prescott, which seemed to vie with William Hague’s Conservatives as to who could build the fewest homes.

Voters will be apt to blame unaffordable housing on excessive net migration

However, when you look at the list of Labour’s most winnable seats, they don’t exactly seem the sort of places where the Nimby vote was ever exactly strong: they include Walsall and Bloxwich, Bournemouth West, Peterborough, Birmingham Northfield, Northampton North and West Bromwich. These are all areas that are already heavily urbanised, where there are few green fields left to develop and where the only sites available for development are brownfield ones.

Labour is probably right that it doesn’t need to woo the Nimby vote in order to triumph in the election. The places where the Nimby vote still appears to be strongest – such as the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean – do not have the constituencies which Labour needs to win in order to form the next government. Rishi Sunak, by contrast, has done all he can to try to please Nimby voters by abandoning national housebuilding targets. Previously, Boris Johnson’s government had promised – but failed – to build 300,000 new homes a year.

The debate over housebuilding and the green belt, however, ignores many complexities. Voters will be apt to blame unaffordable housing not on a shortage of housebuilding but on excessive net migration, which exceeded 700,000 last year. Moreover, a large part of the rampant inflation in house prices over the past three decades has been down to low interest rates. They increased the amount buyers could borrow and encouraged investors into bricks and mortar. During the 2000s Spain and Ireland saw massive housebuilding booms, but it didn’t stop prices rising as demand from investors seemed insatiable. It was only when the financial crisis kicked the bottom out of the mortgage market that prices fell.

It is not just a question of how many homes; it is also a question what kind of homes are built. During the New Labour years, a high proportion of new homes were in the form of luxury city centre flats. Speculators – many of whom live abroad and in many cases had never even visited the developments where they were buying – loved them, but it didn’t help buyers who need a family home. That is something the Conservatives have put right, with the market tilting towards houses over flats.

Another question is whether Labour can actually deliver an increase in housebuilding. Frustrated homebuyers like to blame the planning system – and it does share some of the blame – yet there is also the issue of whether Britain possesses a large enough and skilled enough workforce actually to build new homes. Anyone who has tried to source a bricklayer, or other tradesman, in recent months may well question this.

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