Last week, the second week of the official campaign period for the 2015 General Election, saw the launch of all the major parties’ manifestos. Of the two potential parties of government, Labour were first off the mark, followed a day later by the Conservatives. Of course it might be questioned how significant these documents are, given that even majority governments leave many commitments unfulfilled, but they do however provide at least a guide as to what may happen over the next Parliament, and an indication therefore of the direction certain sectors will be taking.
Provided below is a break-down of where the Conservatives and the Labour party stand on the issues of housing, renewables, rural affairs and tourism.
Following a plethora of policy announcements on the subject, housing is given significant attention by both the main parties’ manifestos. Both are seeking to position themselves as the party with the solution to the national housing crisis, and not surprisingly each blames the other for the current situation. Labour state that “Britain is in the midst of the biggest housing crisis in a generation, with the lowest levels of house building in peacetime since the 1920s.” On the other side of the record, the Conservatives are claiming that “under Labour, housebuilding fell to its lowest peacetime level since the 1920s.”
Whoever is in government after May 7th, it is clear that both parties want to – and will need to – build more houses.
Role of Local Authorities
Labour make a number of pledges that would help local authorities to increase their housing stock. They would like to grant local authorities new ‘use it or lose it’ powers to counter the practice of developers land-banking, and state more vaguely that they would give local communities new powers to provide the homes they need. Labour pledge also to grant local authorities more control of how housing is allocated, such as the power to give first priority to first time buyers on new homes in areas of housing growth. Also, Labour would grant powers to reduce the numbers of empty houses, including higher council tax on long term empty properties.
The Conservatives aim to fund their ambitious ‘Right to Buy’ scheme by having councils sell off their most expensive, vacant houses. This stock would then be replaced by cheaper social housing. They would also bring forward a new ‘Right to Build’ programme, requiring councils to allocate land to local people to build or commission their own home.
There is seemingly consensus that increasing the numbers of people who actually own their own home is important, although the approach to this issue is different. Labour wish to have at least 200,000 new homes built a year by 2020, following the recommendations of the Lyons Review. They state that “it is only by building more homes that people’s aspiration for home ownership will be fulfilled.” The Conservatives and David Cameron have made an extension of the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme to tenants of Housing Associations a key plank of their campaign message – a policy they claim would open up home ownership to an additional 1.3 million people by 2020. The planned method of funding for this massive scheme is to force councils and local authorities to sell off their most expensive housing stock when properties fall vacant. The wisdom of forcing local authorities to sell off their social housing stock when it is already under pressure might be questioned, especially if there is no adequate replacement scheme in place. If this policy is implemented, it seems likely that local authorities will become increasingly reliant on private housing developers to deliver the necessary housing stock.
The Conservatives would tackle the issue of building on brownfield land in a number of ways. First, by establishing a ‘Brownfield Fund’ to allow for more Affordable Homes to be built on brownfield sites. Local authorities would be required to have a register of what brownfield land is available, ensuring that 90 per cent of suitable brownfield sites have planning permission for housing by 2020. Lastly, the funding of Housing Zones to transform brownfield sites into new housing, which they claim would create 95,000 new homes.
First time buyers
Increasing the numbers of first time buyers is also a priority identified by both parties. The Conservatives have an ambition to double the number of first time buyers, compared to the last Parliamentary session, to 1 million. They aim to achieve this by extending the Help to Buy scheme to cover another 120,000 homes (in total helping over 200,000 people), continuing the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee until the start of 2017 and the Help to Buy equity loan until 2020, and introducing a new Help to Buy ISA from this autumn. Further, 200,000 ‘Starter Homes’ would be built over the course of the next Parliament, reserved for first time buyers under 40 and sold at a 20 per cent discount.
As mentioned above, Labour would grant local authorities new powers to give priority to first time buyers in areas of housing growth. To boost the numbers of houses being built generally, Labour would require that the money invested in Help to Buy ISAs be invested in increasing housing supply, repealing the Conservatives’ efforts in this area.
Labour simply state they would boost the supply of affordable homes by prioritising capital investment for housing and reforming the council house financing system.
The Conservatives set out a target figure of 275,000 new affordable homes to be delivered by 2020. Their ‘Brownfield Fund’ would also be aimed at increasing affordable housing supply.
Both parties make commitments to supporting the building of garden cities. Labour claim that to boost housing supply they would initiate a ‘new generation of garden cities,’ whereas the Conservatives would support locally led garden cities and towns, such as Ebbsfleet and Bicester.
“Tackling climate change is an economic necessity and the most important thing we must do for our children, our grandchildren and future generations.” – Labour
This somewhat grand statement of intent from Labour is regrettably not translated later on in their manifesto into concrete policy regarding renewables. There are some further general statements and aims set out, such as working to make Britain a world leader in low carbon technologies and an ambitious aim to make the UK’s electricity supply carbon free by 2030. Labour also claim they would develop an industrial strategy to end uncertainty for investors, granting the Green Investment Bank extra powers to invest in green business and technology, and creating a new Energy Security Board to plan and deliver the energy mix needed for Britain. However, there are no real indications given as to what these ambitions will mean for the future of renewable energy generation in the UK, other than that there will be one.
The Conservatives are more definite in setting out what they plan to do regarding renewables over the next five years. Unfortunately, it is not good news. They state that “onshore wind now makes a meaningful contribution to our energy mix and has been part of the necessary increase in renewable capacity. Onshore windfarms often fail to win public support, however, and are unable by themselves to provide the firm capacity that a stable energy system requires.” They promise to “end any new public subsidy” for onshore windfarms, and “change the law so that local people have the final say on windfarm applications.” No mention is made of solar power. They also commit to continue support for the UK Climate Change Act.
Labour make no direct reference to how they would improve the lot of people who live in rural communities. There are some pledges that would affect these communities however, such as supporting the work of the Natural Capital Committee to protect and improve wildlife habitats and green spaces. They promise to ensure that all parts of the country have access to high speed, affordable broadband by 2020. Potentially the most important policy affecting rural areas that Labour would implement is an end to the badger cull. They would also look to reform the Common Agricultural Policy within the EU.
Unlike Labour, the Conservatives actually dedicate a section of their manifesto to supporting the rural economy. In this section, they set out the target to provide rural Britain with near universal superfast broadband by the end of the next Parliament (as part of a pledge to provide broadband coverage for 95 per cent of the UK by the end of 2017), and to secure the future of 3,000 rural Post Offices. They also would hold mobile operators to a legally binding contract to ensure that 90 per cent of the UK landmass will have voice and SMS coverage by 2017. Over the course of the next Parliament, the Conservatives would legislate with a government bill to allow a free vote over the repeal of the Hunting Act.
Infrastructure improvements are given a lot of emphasis in the early part of the Conservative manifesto, including a total £15 billion investment in roads. Part of this would be invested in the south west, in roads such as the M5, A358, A30 and A303. Spending would also be allocated to electrify the Great Western Main Line.
The Conservatives also promise to champion farmers and food producers, developing a 25 year plan to grow more, buy more and sell more British food. Farmers would be allowed to spread their profits for tax purposes over five years, and there is an ambition to treble the number of apprenticeships in food, farming and agri-tech. Like Labour the Conservatives aim to secure reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
The Commons Culture, Media and Sports Committee published its Tourism report for 2014/15 March. Given how recent this publication was, and the fact that a major message of the report was tourism is “a policy area that has, in the committee’s view, attracted too little attention” it might have been hoped that the sector would receive significant attention in the Labour and Conservative manifestos. However, it would seem that the UK’s fourth largest employing industry was far from the minds of those writing the manifestos, as it is given only cursory attention.
Both the Conservatives and Labour make a commitment to making a swift decision on expanding airport capacity for London and the south east, following the publication of the Davies Review. This was one of the suggestions that the CMS offered in their report.
This commitment is the only nod to tourism that Labour offer. The Conservative manifesto features some (although not many) specifically tourism related pledges. For example, they pledge to set challenging targets for VisitBritain and VisitEngland to ensure more tourists travel outside London. They would also simplify and speed up visa issuance for tourists, and increase efforts to recruit more apprentices into the tourism sector. There is a general pledge to invest to boost tourism in the South West.
There are also pledges which are not directly aimed at benefiting tourism but would have that effect. Both parties would keep major national museums and galleries free to enter. The Conservatives would construct a tunnel under the Stonehenge site where the A303 passes closest.
Conclusion – Ongoing Opportunities
The attention that both the major parties have dedicated to housing in their manifestos is a clear indication that it will be a priority over the next Parliament. In order to increase the housing stock and meet their targets, it is likely that both parties would seek to increase pressure on local authorities to facilitate the building of new homes. However, you can be sure that local authorities and people will push back against government edicts. The other side of the equation is of course the developers – it is possible that central government will try to incentivise house building to encourage more supply.
Middlemarch are well placed to be able to help both sides in this potentially fractious situation. We can guide developers and local authorities towards constructive and mutually beneficial agreements, while also ensuring that local communities’ interests are not overlooked.
On climate change, Labour are vague about their ongoing commitment to renewables and carbon targets, but more positive. The Conservative pledge to end onshore wind development is worrying. However, as an established method of energy production, it will surely be difficult for the Conservatives to meet their commitment to the UK Climate Change Act if they stop support for onshore wind completely. In reality, both parties will have need of wind energy as part of a mixed and increasing supply of renewable energy technologies to meet the UK government’s various climate change commitments. Therefore, regardless of which party gains power in May, there will be continued opportunity for renewable development across the UK.
Middlemarch has used a combination of local and political knowledge over the course of this Parliament to help developers, communities and decision makers work in collaboration to ensure that important renewable schemes can go ahead and to spread the real benefits of renewable schemes to their host communities. This will remain as Middlemarch’s approach to renewable energy projects over the course of the next government.
From the lack of attention given to tourism and rural affairs in both manifestos, it is evident that more work needs to be done to make sure these important interests are represented sufficiently. Commitments from both parties to improving rural broadband are welcome, as is the commitment to push for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. A decision on increasing airport capacity will be a vital boost to the UK’s tourist industry, yet much more needs to be done. Middlemarch is eager and able to provide a voice for these interests at both local and central government level.