Labour will create a dedicated Housing Ministry in order to get to grips with the homeownership crisis sweeping across the country.
In an exclusive interview with HuffPost UK, Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey confirmed getting Britain building and tackling the unfairness in the renting sector would be a key plank of the party’s election manifesto.
Healey also declared it was time for politicians from all parties to come together to turn solving the housing crisis into a “national mission”.
However, Labour will not commit to building at least 300,000 new homes a year – despite a House of Lords report saying that number was needed to tackle the housing crisis.
Instead, Healey promised a million new homes over a five-year parliament – just 200,000 a year.
The MP for Wentworth and Dearne – first elected in the New Labour landslide of 1997 – insisted Jeremy Corbyn would be a good Prime Minister and he had no problem telling that to voters on the doorstep during the election campaign.
Speaking in his office in Westminster, Healey was asked if solving the UK’s housing crisis was going to be “front and centre” of Labour’s election manifesto.
“Yes, for two reasons. One, we recognise the extent of the crisis and the nature of the crisis. Two, Jeremy Corbyn. From day one he asked me not just to be the Shadow Housing Minister but to be the Shadow Housing Secretary, a signal and a commitment that Labour in Government would create a Housing Department to deal with the extent of the crisis we face, capable of making sure that the rest of Whitehall, where needed, does what is required to support a big push, not just to improve the level of new house building, [but] the range of new houses and the standards and across the piece the experience of what it’s like trying to get somewhere affordable to rent or buy these days.”
The Government set out its much-delayed plan to solve the UK housing crisis in February, describing the current situation as “broken.”
The proposals put forward by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid included forcing councils to produce plans to tackle housing demand, reducing the time developers can sit on planning permission from three to two years, and helping smaller construction companies compete against bigger rivals.
Extract from ‘Fixing Our Broken Housing Market’ white paper:
“The problem is threefold: not enough local authorities planning for the homes they need; house building that is simply too slow; and a construction industry that is too reliant on a small number of big players.”
At the time, Healey described the report as “feeble beyond belief”, but despite his criticism of the Tory plans, he told HuffPost UK he wanted to work with them to put a long-term solution in place to finally solve the housing crisis.
He said: “This may sound strange for somebody who leads for Labour on housing nationally, but the extent that we can get a commitment to that sort of approach supported by all parties, the extent to which we can make this a new national mission that isn’t simply the subject of party political debate, the extent to which we can get developers, housing associations, the public, landlords behind us, as well as tenants and people who want to buy their own home, so much the better, that’s what I’ve worked for.”
When asked if he envisaged politicians from different parties coming together as some have with regards to social care, he replied: “I’m arguing that that’s what we should be aiming for - if Labour was in Government that’s what I would set out to put in place.”
Healey added: “But you’ve got a Conservative Government over the last seven years, and a set of ministers including a Prime Minister now, that is so far from that sort of growing consensus and recognition of what’s needed my immediate hope of any sort of cross party agreement or meeting of minds on the scale of the challenge or the action necessary is, I’m afraid, very far off, which is why I see housing not just as one of the leading concerns and issues in this General Election campaign but it will be one of the leading points of arguments as well.”
One area where Healey is in agreement with the Government is protecting the green belt, which makes up 13% of land in the UK.
Numerous campaigners and think-tanks have urged the Government to lift restrictions on green belt development, with The Adam Smith Institute saying in February that “much of it is ugly scrap land or intensive farmland with little amenity and high environmental costs.”
Healey said: “I see no strong case for altering the approach we have taken for some time to the green belt which is essentially to say it serves an important purpose.
“It is possible for local areas having gone through a local process to alter the boundaries of the green belt but that’s rightly a local decision.
“Our track record – 13 years in Government, and what we’ve consistently said in opposition as well - is it should be brownfield first.”
Yet focusing purely on brownfield land might not solve the UK’s housing crisis.
Analysis produced by planning and development consultancy firm Lichfields in 2014 estimated that while there is space for a million homes on brownfield sites, they are not in the areas of most need.
The South East, East of England, South West and East Midlands has brownfield capacity for just a fifth of the total homes required to meet demand.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, Lichfields’ associate director Joe Sarling said: “It is right to try to build homes on brownfield land – where appropriate and if these places have good infrastructure nearby.
“However, if we are serious about solving the housing crisis that has grown over many decades, we need to have a serious and upfront discussion about how we use land of all types, where and how we build homes and how we balance important competing priorities.”
Healey was also keen to offer increased rights and support for the estimated 4million renting in the private sector.
However, when pushed on whether he would back introducing rent controls – a policy backed by Ed Miliband in 2015 and Jeremy Corbyn in his leadership campaigns – Healey was coy.
He said: “We’re in week one of the General Election campaign with just over six weeks to go, you’ll have to wait until the manifesto for us to set out some of the details that you and others are looking for.”
Healey may not be the most familiar face in the Shadow Cabinet, but he has been part of Labour’s top team for 15 years.
After serving in the Treasury from 2002 to 2007 when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, Healey was shifted to the Local Government department by Gordon Brown.
In 2009 he was appointed as Minister for Housing, and get the same brief after Labour were voted out of office in 2010.
He served for a year as Shadow Health Secretary under Ed Miliband before stepping down from the front bench to spend more time with his family in 2011.
Corbyn – the fourth leader under which Healey has served – appointed him Shadow Housing Minister in 2015, but he was one of the many frontbenchers to quit in the aftermath of EU referendum result less than a year later.
Speaking about Corbyn last June, Healey said: “Having worked closely with him for nine months, he clearly can’t cut it as a leader – and he’s now lost the support of MPs across the wide political breadth of the Labour Party, including people like me.”
Speaking to HuffPost, Healey said he went back into the Shadow Cabinet last year as it was his way of “serving the Labour Party.”
He said: “I wasn’t part of the rush to resign and I had a very clear face-to-face conversation with Jeremy Corbyn before I came to that decision. I said to him then what I said to him two months earlier.
He added: “All four leaders had their flaws in different ways. All benefitted from having somebody who didn’t necessarily agree with them being able to give them a blunt view working with them and helping broaden and make the political breadth of the leadership that bit wider.”
When asked if he believed the current leadership team has the “breadth” required to win an election, Healey said: “I think the Labour Party has the breadth, and this has been a really tough time in the Shadow Cabinet.
“What the Labour Party does well, particularly faced with an election as we have now, is coming together, fighting together and making sure we carry our arguments.
“We’ve got to win a hearing from people who haven’t been listening to politicians, haven’t been listening to Labour, we’ve got to win a hearing again, we’ve got to win support and we’ve got to win them back.”
When asked if he could look voters in the eye and say he believes Corbyn would be a good Prime Minister, Healey replied defiantly: “Yes, I can say and I do.”
He added: “We need a Labour Government which would be lead by Jeremy Corbyn.
“Whatever you think of some of the detail of what we stand for any Labour Government is so much better than any Conservative Government.”
Responding to Labour’s claims on housebuilding, Housing Minister Gavin Barwell MP said: “Under Theresa May’s strong and stable leadership, we recently set out a clear plan to build more affordable housing – and the number of housing starts is up by three quarters since 2010.
“A vote for anyone else at this election risks putting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street, propped up by the Lib Dems and the SNP in a coalition of chaos. When Labour last crashed the economy, housebuilding fell to the lowest peacetime levels since the 1920s. Think about what would happen under Corbyn.”