Labour sets out housing pledge
Councils should be given the power to override neighbouring "home-blocking" authorities and "land-hoarding developers" to build thousands of new homes, Labour leader Ed Miliband has said.
Mr Miliband said the "worst housing shortage for a generation" was driving up costs for first-time buyers as he outlined his party's plan to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2020.
He added that more has to be done to ensure affordable homes while construction giants' profits continue to go "through the roof".
Referring to Barratt, Berkeley, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey, Mr Miliband said: "Profits for our four biggest housing developers are going through the roof.
"They have soared 557% since this Government took office - even though homes have been built at their slowest rate witnessed in peacetime for almost a century."
As part of the ambitious pledge to double the number of homes being built each year by 2020, the Leader of the Opposition announced a 'right to grow' that would give support to councils whose expansions are blocked by cross-border disputes.
The move was quickly attacked by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who said the initiative was the latest in a series of "populist, gimmicky" Labour policies.
He said: "They are avoiding making any pronouncements on the major economic judgements they would need to make if they were to find themselves in government, instead favour a series of populist, gimmicky policy pronouncements.
"We have seen it today with the pronouncement from Labour on housing. This is from a party which saw an absolute crash, a collapse, in social housing stock in the years that they were in charge. Waiting lists soared for those who were waiting to get onto the housing ladder, and the number of empty homes soared as well.
"This is hardly a party well-placed now to provide lectures on how to rectify the problems in the housing market."
Announcing the policy on a visit to a successful development in Stevenage, Mr Miliband said: "House prices are going through the roof and it's taking families up to 20 years to save the deposit for their first home, so the housing crisis we have in this country is central to the cost-of-living crisis.
"That's why we've said a Labour government will take on home-blocking councils and land-hoarding developers so that young people and families can fulfil their dreams of a home of their own.
"A Labour government would give a 'right to grow' to councils so that they can't simply be blocked all the time by neighbouring councils, but can actually expand.
"A Labour government is determined to reach the objective of building 200,000 homes a year by 2020 so that we can meet the needs of so many people across the country who find they can't afford a home to rent or to buy."
Mr Miliband refused to comment on any potential changes to taxation on home buying, but insisted an increase in supply of homes would drive down the cost of properties.
He said: "The issues of affordability are absolutely bound up with the problem of supply of housing in this country.
"Tackling the issue of affordability is absolutely about tackling the issue of supply, and that's why we have set what I think is an ambitious goal of 200,000 homes a year by 2020, and we've got a clear set of plans to make that happen.
"First of all, tackling the issue of home-blocking councils. Secondly, dealing with the issue of developers that are sitting on lands. We have half a million sites that have planning permission in this country where homes are not being built. And thirdly, dealing with the issue of new towns and garden cities.
"You always look at issues of taxation and we'll set out our tax plans at the election, but I think the central issue that is driving the problem of affordability across the country is the question of supply."
Labour have referred the details of their plans to a Housing Commission, which was announced at the party's conference earlier this year and is headed by ex-BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons.
The group will consider the 'right to grow' scheme, which is supported by four authorities including Stevenage and Luton, and help identify sites for new towns and garden cities that could be underwritten by Treasury guarantees.
They will also look at simplifying rules surrounding the Housing Revenue Account to give local authorities more flexibility in how existing public funding is spent and examine how communities can benefit from windfalls gained from the granting of planning permission.
The announcement was criticised by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who highlighted the possibility that greater emphasis on expansion could threaten green belt land.
He said: "Under Labour, housebuilding fell to its lowest peacetime rate since the 1920s. Their top-down regional strategies and eco-towns failed hard-working families who aspired to own their own home, building nothing but resentment," he said.
"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."
Mr Miliband emphasised in response that environmentally protected land would not be threatened, saying: "Of course we have got to protect Green Belt, but we need a fair process whereby councils that want to expand can do, and that's what we are proposing."
Shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds added that Labour would seek to mirror the French practice of having individuals build their own homes.
Joining Mr Miliband in Stevenage, she said: "What's interesting in France, and what we've said we need to look at more carefully here - though it won't be the same - is local authorities more often than not will give land to individuals or smaller builders.
"There's a lot of self-builds, which we don't have here. Our market is dominated by those big house-builders.
"We'd like to see more small and medium-sized builders, and also individuals - a more diverse market that will make it more competitive."
The Government released figures showing that 353 local councils in England have received a total of more than £2 billion through the New Homes Bonus scheme for helping deliver 550,000 new-build properties and conversions and bringing 93,000 empty homes back into use.
The scheme is designed to provide an incentive for communities to support sustainable development, with the cash rewards going on other measures to benefit the local area, such as holding down council tax. Funds from the New Homes Bonus have also gone towards schemes such as improving footpaths and play areas in South Lakeland, Cumbria, and building an urban sports facility in Andover, Hampshire.
Housing minister Kris Hopkins said: "Top-down regional strategies and eco-towns failed hard-working families who aspired to own their own home, and built nothing but resentment.
"In stark contrast, councils have received over £2 billion for their part in getting Britain building, and leading to housing construction reaching its highest levels for seven years.
"And they are free to spend the money any way they like to benefit their local communities - whether that's supporting frontline services, providing new facilities or freezing council tax."