22 January 2019

Labour should practise what it preaches on housing


Power in local government is particularly important to a political party that is in opposition nationally. For a start there is the impact on morale of council election results. Politicians can dismiss (or pretend to dismiss) opinion polls. Real elections cannot be so easily brushed aside. So local elections are taken, quite reasonably, as a rough and ready measure of whether a party is “on course” for a general election victory.

There is also the respite they offer from the inherently depressing nature of opposition. Instead the opposition can point to positive examples of where their policies are being implemented. “We know that this can achieve results because we can already see what is happening in Dudley….” Credibility can be claimed by pointing to a town hall already acting as a “testbed” or “showcase” for a policy.

It can work the other way, of course. Councils can be pointed to as a warning of what would happen if the Leader of the Opposition got into Downing Street. During the 1980s the constant supply of stories about “Loony Left” councils such as Liverpool, Lambeth, and Islington contributed to Labour’s failure to win nationally.

At present we have a bit of a score draw. A typical Labour council is rather dull and managerialist. Even where the Corbynistas have won some selection contests, such as in Haringey, they have yet to make a dramatic impact. But it would be difficult for Labour to generate much enthusiasm for their party in places where they are already in charge. I have already written for this site on the failings of the Labour Mayor of London and the Labour-run Welsh Government. Birmingham is the country’s largest metropolitan authority – Labour are also in power there, but their performance has been pretty dismal.

Yet the “town hall test” should be more instructive than ever. Given that the housing shortage was such an important issue at the last General Election – and is sure to be at the next one as well – the examples of local authorities should offer the electorate a pretty good clue.

In London, where the pressure on housing is most acute, Labour councils are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Planning rules are a serious obstacle to increasing the supply of new homes. The Conservative government has sought to liberalise the system in various modest ways. Of course, the need for new development is obvious. But conversion of existing buildings used for other purposes can also help. With more of us working and shopping from home, we don’t need as many shops and offices. At the same time given that as there are more of us, we need more homes.

Thus the more quick-witted have come up with a bright idea: A “change of use” from buildings we have a surplus of to those of which we are in dire need. If we had a genuine “property market” this is what would happen automatically. It just needs the planners to get out of the way.

So the Government introduced “permitted development rights” to allow offices to be turned into homes without planning permission. Since 2015, a total of 42,130 new homes in England have been provided as a result of this.

Yet rather than welcome this reform, the response from Labour councils has been as obstructive as possible (for instance using a device called an “article 4 direction”). Jeremy Corbyn’s home borough of Islington has been among the worst offenders.

Cllr Asima Shaikh, the “executive member for inclusive economy and jobs” on Islington Council laments: “We’ve already seen the huge impact that the permitted development right has had elsewhere in Islington since 2013, with landlords converting more than six football pitches’ worth of office space into residential.” Camden is another culprit. Often the office buildings converted into homes were redundant, empty and under-used.

The Labour politicians claim these new homes don’t count as they are not “affordable housing”. But they are – in the genuine, rather than bureaucratic sense of the term. These conversions are not subsidised but they usually provide relatively low-cost market housing. Indeed sometimes the Champagne Socialists sneer about them being “bedsits”. Certainly they increase the chance for those wishing to get on the housing ladder while still living in London.

Of course many of the new homes will still be unaffordable to those on average incomes. But fair-minded people will appreciate the answer is not to reduce the supply – by keeping a lot of unneeded offices – but to find ways of further increasing the supply.

Furthermore these Labour councils have failed to take advantage on opportunities for new homes on their own land. A report from Property Partner found that councils in London own more than 53,000 lock-up garages – but that 41 per cent are empty or in disrepair. The worst offending boroughs turned out to be Ealing, Havering, Brent, and Enfield. These had respectively 74 per cent (1,480 empty garages), 72 per cent (1,469), 71 per cent (1,234) and 70 per cent (2,008) of their total garages lying idle.

Often a row of empty garages on a council estate could be replaced by a row of bungalows – or, indeed, two, three or four storey housing. Some of the new homes could be sold in the open market with the profit used to pay for the rest to provide more social housing to ease the problems of overcrowding and temporary accommodation.

So when Labour promise that in Government they will make bold reform to end the housing crisis a top priority they should be challenged. The evidence is clear – wherever Labour have had power, they have not only missed opportunities to build more, they have actively undermined those trying to do so.

Labour Islington councillors Diarmaid Ward and Asima Shaikh offer their response to Harry’s piece

Harry Phibbs is a blogger and journalist.