Does the Conservative manifesto indicate lower housebuilding ambitions?

The Conservative Party's new general election manifesto includes lower short-term housebuilding targets than its 2017 predecessor. Some commentators wonder whether the party is downscaling its housing delivery ambitions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the campaign trail (pic: Getty)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the campaign trail (pic: Getty)

Last weekend, the Conservative Party unveiled its manifesto for the forthcoming general election. If elected, the manifesto said, the new Tory government would "continue our progress towards our target of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s. This will see us build at least a million more homes, of all tenures, over the next Parliament – in the areas that really need them."

The promise to deliver 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s pledge has, of course, been made many times before by the Conservatives and was first announced by ex-chancellor Philip Hammond back in November 2017. And recent government figures show that the country is getting closer to that target. According to data published by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government earlier this month, net additional dwellings reached more than 240,000 in 2018/19 – the highest level since records began in 1991/92.

However, the party's promise to build one million homes over the next five-year parliament would actually represent a drop from this figure - and from its commitment in its last general election manifesto. A million homes over five years breaks down as 200,000 homes a year on average - a figure almost 20 per cent lower than the new homes created in 2018/19. In 2017, former Tory leader Theresa May pledged that her government would deliver half a million homes in 2021 and 2022, equating to 250,000 units a year. 

The dropping of May’s promise to raise the bar to 250,000 homes a year in 2021 and 2022 has led some observers to wonder whether the Tories' loss of councillors in May’s local elections due to contentious housing plans has prompted the party to take a less ambitious approach to homes delivery.

"There was clearly a huge impact in the local elections with anti-development groups doing well and I am sure they would have looked at that, said Jack Airey, head of housing at free market think tank Policy Exchange. "But I really hope they won’t have changed their ambitions for building enough homes for people where they want to live because of that. It would be quite depressing if that was the case."

Rebekah Paczek, managing director of communications consultancy Snapdragon, said: "If the Tories are rolling back on their commitment to deliver, you could question whether they are not prepared to be quite as radical in terms of planning reform or in their support for the Oxford to Cambridge growth arc. A lot of that housing delivery was anticipated to be in big new settlements in the arc." She pointed out that the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, has so far refused permission for a number of schemes "that on the face of it seemed to be broadly policy compliant". "So, he hasn’t necessarily been walking the walk in terms of delivering on the party's rhetoric," she added.

However, she did not think that local politics is necessarily driving Boris Johnson’s agenda. "There are areas where opposition to development is very strong, but I think there's a recognition that more housing is needed," she said. "There are more people in housing need than in those opposition groups."

David Scane, associate partner at Newgate Communications, pointed out that David Cameron's 2015 manifesto also pledged the building of one million homes over the course of the parliament and the Conservatives are actually on course to deliver that promise. "If you look at the numbers they have been delivering over the last four years, they are on target to hit the million homes between 2015 and 2020," he says.

As a result, he argued, the latest promise to build one million homes over the next parliament is a continuation of a longer-term policy. "You could say the manifesto pledge is a lowering of ambitions because they’re just saying that they will do the same again, rather than pushing for more over the next five years," says Scane. "The worst you can say is that they are standing still."

Toby Lloyd, ex-No 10 housing advisor and former policy lead at housing charity Shelter, said the figures are meant to indicate that the Conservatives are serious about building new homes, but warned of the dangers of reading too much into manifesto numbers. "Sometimes these targets can get over-interpreted," he said. "People pore over them as if there is some enormous science to them and of course there isn’t. They are just big round numbers that are pulled out of the air to make a statement about the direction of travel."

Sharp-eyed observers also spotted that the timescale around the 300,000 units pledge doesn’t actually commit the Conservatives to achieving it in the next parliament. Assuming the next parliament runs for the full five years (though Johnson’s Tories have pledged to scrap the Fixed Term Parliament Act), the next general election would be held in December 2024. "Mid-2020s" could mean 2025 or 2026. "There is a lot deliberate ambiguity around when these targets are going to be met," said Scane.

How the other parties’ pledges on planning for housing stack up


Labour

  • The Labour manifesto does not contain an overall housing delivery figure. However, by the end of the Parliament, it says a Labour government would, in England, be building "at an annual rate of at least 150,000 council and social homes, with 100,000 of these built by councils for social rent".
  • By comparison, in its 2017 manifesto, the party pledged to build "over" a million homes though it did not specify when these would be delivered. It added that by "the end of the next Parliament we will be building at least 100,000 council and housing association homes a year for genuinely affordable rent or sale."
  • In its first five years in office, the party said it would compel developers to shoulder the costs of building "at least" 50,000 cut price homes for would-be owners on low incomes , with prices linked to local incomes.
  • Labour promises to "end the conversion of office blocks to homes that sidestep planning permission through ‘permitted development’".

Liberal Democrats

  • The party’s manifesto includes a commitment to build at least 100,000 homes for social rent across England every year and ensure that annual housing delivery tops 300,000 units. The 300,000 target is unchanged from the 2017 manifesto.
  • The party would also scrap permitted development rights allowing offices and shops to be converted to housing without a planning application.

The Green Party

  • The party’s 2019 manifesto states: "We will allow councils to develop their own planning policies, based on genuine local housing need and their requirement to contribute to the creation of at least 100,000 new council homes a year nationally."
  • It adds that councils would be required to deliver these new homes "in a way that preserves local ecology and creates new green spaces".

The Brexit Party

  • The manifesto contains no solid numbers on housing delivery, but says the party will "simplify the planning and development processes to encourage small and medium sized developers, accelerating the pace of development to increase housing supply."

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