Labour conference buried gem: Land laws reform to stop the “free-for-all”

Forget Starmer’s speech, McDonald’s resignation and Rayner’s expletives, says Sussex Bylines writer Rick Dillon, who followed much of the Labour Party Conference in Brighton this week. Far more important were the under-reported land laws reform proposals, some of which were put forward by the Hastings & Rye local party and passed enthusiastically by delegates, that would stop the developers’ planning free-for-all and could finally fix our nation’s housing crisis…

Above: Shadow Housing Secretary Lucy Powell delivering her speech at the conference in Brighton this week. Photo c/o Labour Party

The mainstream media’s coverage of this week’s Labour Party conference in Brighton has focused on grabby headline fodder, like shadow employment secretary Andy McDonald’s resignation, the failure of the voting reform motion for proportional representation, despite its 80% support from members; Deputy Leader Angela Rayner’s refusal to apologise for using the word “scum” to describe the ruling Tories; and endless critiques of Keir Starmer’s speech.  Meanwhile, land ownership reforms proposed by a local Sussex constituency at the Labour conference went largely unnoticed. If implemented, the proposed land reform laws could stop the widespread developers’ practice of ‘land banking’ and free up thousands of acres of ‘brownfield’ sites for housing development.

Stopping the Tory planning free-for-all

The desperate need for more homes across England – specifically, ones that are actually affordable, well built, and truly green – is acknowledged by all the opposition parties. But one of the biggest challenges – and usually the largest point of contention with local communities – is where to locate them. Currently, local councils are obliged to meet quotas dictated by central government for building homes in their areas, even if the data and algorithms the figures are based on are outdated. Increasingly, developments are opposed – by locals and environmentalists alike – primarily because they threaten ‘green belt’ land.

The Johnson Government’s recently proposed Planning Bill to relax existing laws has been widely criticised as a “free-for-all”. And it seems that the howls of protest from the Tory shires proved impossible to ignore, as it has now been put on pause by the latest Housing Secretary, Michael Gove.

Targeting ‘brownfield sites’ instead of precious green belt

The real challenge for cash-strapped local councils is how to provide homes on ‘brownfield sites’ – plots of land that have already been developed, many of which sit vacant and unused. Last year the countryside charity CPRE produced a report showing that there were already enough brownfield sites to build 1.3 million new homes, of which half a million had existing planning permission. Nearly everyone agrees they should be built on as a priority. But – and it’s a big but – much of this land is owned by private investors and is therefore an asset on their books. If land values go down, so does the asset. So-called ‘land banking’ defies attempts by local authorities to free up land for building, and even after gaining planning permission, developers cannot currently be forced to begin building, nor even penalised for failing to do so.

In a little reported part of her speech, Labour’s shadow housing secretary, Lucy Powell, promised to “reform arcane compensation rules” giving local authorities “new powers to buy and develop land for housing”. She went on to say this could generate up to 100,000 new homes a year, much of which would be social and affordable.

Policy shift proposed by local East Sussex Labour Party

The policy shift owes a lot to an East Sussex constituency Labour Party. Members of Hastings & Rye Labour picked reform of compulsory purchase orders as the one motion each CLP is entitled to send to conference. The CLP’s General Committee were impressed by the arguments put forward by Councillor Andy Batsford, who’s in charge of the housing portfolio on Labour-controlled Hastings Borough Council. “The council’s efforts to provide housing on the few sites currently available have met with strong resistance from nearby residents,” he explained, adding that people often say to him: “Why build here, when there’s that big empty site up the road?

The problem is, he says, that the “big empty site up the road” is privately owned and land banked.

Home page of the campaign group "Don't Urbanise The Downs" which is fighting plans to build a new town of 3000 homes on unspoiled South Downs countryside that's owned by Eton College
Above: Home page of the campaign group “Don’t Urbanise The Downs which is fighting plans to build a new town of 3000 homes on unspoiled South Downs countryside, land that has long been owned – and “land banked” – by Eton College

The CPO process is not working,” Batsford continued, “and means the landowner can hold the people of Hastings and its land to hostage, making profit on the asset as it sits, accruing on the owner’s bank balance.

At present, the council has substantial legal and financial costs, including having to pay high levels of compensation to the owner of the land. It makes building affordable homes on such sites almost impossible.

Taking back power from the housing developers

Government must strengthen compulsory purchase orders in order to make them at least cost-neutral, said Batsford. This would enable local authorities to legally take over land that is left idle and turn it over to groups able to build truly affordable homes for the betterment of the community.

Batsford believes that councillors from all parties, including the Conservatives, will see tougher CPO rules as an attractive option. It will be interesting to see whether any of them now put pressure on Michael Gove to pursue this approach. Gove says he is looking for new ideas to solve the nation’s housing crisis. But he has a lot to weigh up – including the fact, revealed recently, of the substantial amount that property developers provide to Tory party funds.

This is just one aspect of Labour’s plans to radically shake up the country’s housing market. A proposed Building Works Agency would assess, fix, fund, and certify all tall buildings to avoid another disaster like Grenfell. It would then pursue those responsible for costs.

There was also discussion on linking ‘affordable’ housing in development to local wages, and safeguarding tenants rights. Many delegates spoke of safe, affordable homes being a basic human right. As Powell said: “Everyone has the right to a safe, secure, stable, warm, truly affordable home.”

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