Following another eventful party conference season featuring the usual menu of party in-fighting, political stunts and headline-grabbing claims, it’s debatable whether the general public is any closer to understanding who Westminster’s two main parties really are.
However, for the quarter of the public who rank housing as a top three issue, it’s hard to believe that only one of those parties seemed capable of providing a refreshed vision on the UK’s fomenting housing crisis.
Pagefield Senior Executive, Patrick Reynolds, sets out his key housing takeaways from party conference 2023.
Generational dividing lines
The disparity in the number of housing policy references at both Conservative and Labour Party conferences revealed clear, dividing lines on which subsets of voters would be targeted at the next general election.
Rishi Sunak’s headline speech, while packed full of new policy announcements, glaringly omitted a single mention of housing. While the Conservative conference had its fair share of housing-related fringe events – with ministerial attendance at events on social housing, housing supply and the private rented sector – there was a sense that the scale of the problems facing the country is only being acknowledged, rather than being the basis of a policy agenda to tackle it.
It may well be that Sunak is playing his cards close to his chest on housing whilst honing his electoral strategy across the other issues of the day. For younger voters, however, this has the effect of projecting an image of the party leaning further into its core voter base of older homeowners, instead of those reckoning with dwindling homeownership aspirations and stuck in a nightmarish rental market.
Labour looking across the aisle
Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer used his platform at Labour’s annual conference to speak on a range of housing issues, seemingly more aware of the language needed to appeal to both younger and older voters.
Technically, Labour’s 1.5 million housing target across the next Parliament matches the ambition of the Conservative’s now scrapped annual target. But Starmer successfully navigated the sensitivity of building on the greenbelt and instead reframed an alternative approach which proposes building on the ‘grey belt’. Broadly defined as low-quality green belt areas of wasted potential where redevelopment would be less vocally opposed, the grey belt has the potential to appeal to voters who have been caught up in the conflict between NIMBYs and YIMBYs.
While some were disappointed that housing was not put on Labour’s priority ballot – which decides motions to be discussed in more detail – Starmer has staked his clear intention (think of Starmer’s many references to the “pebble-dash semi” of his childhood) to make housing a personal priority. This marks a clear contrast with Sunak on a policy area that will become increasingly relevant as we approach the next election.
Who brought industry on side?
Although the Conservatives have long enjoyed the support of the housebuilding industry, there is widespread frustration in that industry around the urgent reforms needed to the UK’s planning system. As a result many across the property sector have come out in support of Starmer’s ambitions to ‘bulldoze’ through current planning rules. Although we are yet to receive detailed policy proposals, Labour has tried to make the most of its attempts to forge a closer relationship between the party and the private sector, proclaiming that the private sector will be crucial to stimulating economic and regional growth under its ambitious New Towns plan.
However, the Government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Act already set outs plans to address a number of planning issues. Now an Act of Parliament, the legislation could allow Sunak to come out on top by creating a workable foundation for the increased supply of affordable housebuilding in the UK. This includes reforming Compulsory Purchase Orders, which could allow councils to deliver social housing at a 38% lower cost through scrapping the use of ‘hope value’ in land price calculations.
As younger voters and industry eagerly await further detail on Labour’s housing stance, all eyes are on the Renters Reform Bill. This could provide the Government with its last chance to have a meaningful impact on housing before going to the electorate.
At Pagefield, we understand the interaction between key industry verticals and Westminster and are specialists in Public & Regulatory Affairs. If you want to talk to us about how we can help you to engage UK political parties on specific policy issues ahead of the General Election, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org.