Lord Prescott famously declared:
“The green belt is a Labour achievement, and we mean to build on it.”
Ed Miliband has adopted the same approach today, saying that North Hertfordshire Council’s objection to building on the green belt should be brushed aside. I think there should be some flexibility over the green belt – bits of which aren’t very green, but rather scuzzy. Probably the way to overcome objections is to propose new housing that is beautiful rather than ugly. But these are decisions that should be made in Hertfordshire, not by Mr Miliband.
In any case, the countryside currently under threat is not scuzzy. It is Forster country (pictured) – the setting for Howard’s End. The villagers of Weston and Graveley are entitled to be concerned to protect their surroundings. Their councillors are not “stick in the muds” for having regard to these concerns when deciding where, how many, and what type of new homes should be built. “Only connect,” is the great mission. It is better to try to find attractive, sustainable alternatives rather than for Mr Miliband to hurl insults around.
It is an extraordinary proposition for Stevenage Council to decide what should happens in North Hertfordshire Council. In supporting it Mr Miliband shows his hostility to local democracy. If residents reject urban sprawl at the ballot box they will have it imposed on them anyway. Would a Labour council like being told what to do by a neighbouring Tory authority?
Mr Miliband’s speech today also sees an extension of his anti-profits message. He will take a swipe at building firms saying “that profits of the country’s four biggest housing developers – Barratt, Berkeley, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey – are “going through the roof”. Adding: “They have soared 557% since this government took office.”
Taylor Wimpey made a loss of £59 million in 2010. Barratt lost £11.5 million. Other firms also found it tough going. Are those the glory days Mr Miliband would like to return to? Isn’t it better that more homes are now being built and being sold? Last quarter, housing starts were up by 33 per cent on last year, and planning approvals for new homes were up by 45 per cent. More homes means more profit.
Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles says:
“Under Labour, housebuilding fell to its lowest peacetime rate since the 1920s. Their top-down Regional Strategies and eco-towns failed hardworking families who aspired to own their own home, building nothing but resentment.
“That’s why we have worked with local communities to help build more homes, scrapping Regional Strategies and rewarding construction via the New Homes Bonus. We are helping hardworking people up the housing ladder through Help to Buy and the reinvigorated Right to Buy. Both first time buyers and housing construction have risen to their highest level since 2007, whilst repossessions have plummeted thanks to the lower interest rates from our long term economic plan.
“Labour’s policy shows this is the same old Labour party. They would allow Labour councils to forcibly rip up Green Belt protection in neighbouring councils. While their new tax on planning permission would reduce housebuilding and discourage regeneration schemes. We know there is more to do to help build homes. But this must be done by working with hardworking families in communities across Britain, allowing councils to shape where development should and shouldn’t go via Local Plans, and safeguarding important environmental protections.”
It’s not just Mr Pickles attacking Labour on housing. The Labour MP and former Housing Minister John Healey is joining in. He says Labour is “preoccupied elsewhere” when it comes to making housing more affordable. However, Mr Healey’s own contribution is muddled. He says affordability is a problem, especially for Londoners. Yet he rebukes housing associations that “prefer to talk about shared ownership and intermediate tenures rather than social housing”. Mr Healey is furious at Labour’s “relative silence” over the “dramatic increase in right to buy discounts”. Yet these are policies to make it more affordable to get on the housing ladder and to raise more funds for building new homes. At the same time Mr Healey does not offer a word of apology on his own lamentable record.
There is a challenge in reconciling the demands of new housing, local democracy, and environmental protection. Mr Miliband’s speech is not a positive contribution. Mr Healey’s approach would be even worse.