For once, there is a serious contrast on a major social issue between the two main political parties. The Conservative party conference was dominated by an announcement that the government will not be building something big – in that case HS2.
By contrast, Keir Starmer’s conference centrepiece was to announce that his will be the government that finally gets serious on housing. He is saying all of the right things for the “build more bloody houses” brigade – he’ll take on the green belt, speed up planning, and override NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard-ers), even if they are his own MPs.
Starmer has even admitted he’s had his NIMBY moments himself on behalf of constituents, but has been convinced on the need for many more houses to meet the country’s future needs. He’s even promised to override NIMBYs when his own MPs are among them.
Talk on housing is easy (and cheap). Actually getting it done requires overruling all kinds of vested interests, who are used to winning time and again, delighting in making the UK a nightmarish place in which to get anything made.
Turning these pledges into action will require someone running the programme who truly believes in it. Here is where question marks start to appear, for Labour’s shadow minister for housing and planning, Greenwich and Woolwich MP Matthew Pennycook, does not seem to be that man.
Just two years ago, in September 2021, Pennycook expressed his dismay that Greenwich council had approved 1,500 new homes because they were to be contained in a 36-storey block, lest it start a “race for the skies”. Pennycook’s constituency is directly next to Canary Wharf – famously not a low-rise area.
As shadow housing minister, as recently as March 2022, Pennycook has expressed his doubts that supply is a “panacea for affordability” – a comment now both in contrast to Labour’s flagship policy and one the pro-building wing of Labour will note is contradicted by evidence from Australia, where a surge in building (not just focused on social housing) rapidly brought down prices.
Also embarrassing for Keir Starmer is that under his leadership, the party used an opposition day debate – one of the occasions where the opposition gets to choose what to debate – to argue in favour of keeping planning decisions local.
In his opening speech to that debate, then-shadow secretary of state for communities and local government Steve Reed said the government would “reap a political whirlwind” if it “went ahead with their plans to silence communities and hand control over planning to developers”. People may note that this is not a bad summary of Labour’s new flagship policy.
None of this, of course, suggests that any of the people concerned would be unwilling to enact Labour’s new policy. We all know that politics is a cynical business, and who is to say whether they were being sincere then, or now?
But for a policy that will require a lot of drive to actually do, and which will only deliver and become popular once it is actually working, it will be a concern in some quarters that Labour doesn’t seem to have a true believer in this policy.
Going through the motions will result in what always seems to happen in Britain: nothing getting done.