On the face of it, it’s a simple equation. In the north-London borough of Islington, there are almost 9,000 people on the housing waiting list. The area needs more homes. A Conservative-led Government cuts red-tape, making it possible to convert empty and redundant office space into new homes without planning permission. Local council chiefs ought to welcome this – recognising this will help address their local housing shortage.
But not so in Labour-run Islington, where the Council is instead threatening legal action against the Government for freeing up much-needed homes in this way. For the second time since the legislation was introduced in May 2013, the council is intent on using taxpayers’ money to challenge it. In February they tried and failed to get it banned altogether.
All this fuss from a Labour council whose leader made housing a ‘key priority’ that he said Labour would address. A cynic might call it political posturing. I say what a nerve! Whatever side of the political divide you’re on, no-one can doubt our change-of-use reforms will deliver more homes where previously there was empty space – at no cost to the taxpayer. And for every extra home that is delivered one more family can enjoy greater financial security and peace of mind.
Just six months after these new change-of-use rules came into force, a survey carried out by the Estates Gazette found more than 2,250 applications for office-to-residential changes had been made. A report by Knight Frank supported this evidence, concluding this new policy had led to applications for conversions totalling roughly 3.2 million square feet. All the evidence points to this new policy having a positive impact: helping to provide competitively-priced homes for hard-working people.
But what have Labour said? In October, the Shadow Planning Minister called the policy ‘misguided’ and the Shadow Local Government Minister said it was ‘the opposite of what our high streets need’. Labour Assembly Member Nicky Gavron, acknowledging London’s surplus of office space, warned the plans could be ‘using a sledgehammer to crack a nut’.
The truth is, they’re opposing this scheme because they can’t impose development taxes on such homes. It’s the same old Labour: more spending, more borrowing, more taxes.
For a party that keeps saying housing is one of their main priorities this is depressing. It shows that Ed Miliband and the Labour Party have no plan on housing. They have opposed all the sensible measures we’ve taken to boost homes and home ownership. One example is our Help to Buy scheme, which has helped increase house-building to its highest level since 2007: over 445,000 new homes since 2010, with more than 200,000 new affordable homes.
Look to the Conservatives, however, and you see that change-of-use forms is part of a wider push to build thousands of new homes on previously-developed land. Other schemes include publicly-owned land to deliver 100,000 homes by 2015 and giving the public new powers to challenge the Government to sell its land and property. Just last week, our housing minister Brandon Lewis opened bids for a share of £200 million to create 10 housing zones on brownfield – large enough to deliver up to 2,000 homes outside the capital. A similar initiative in London would lead to 20 zones in London.
Labour – and their Islington councillors – are making a lot noise on housing. But their statist approach to housing policy, with higher taxes and more red tape, would in reality lead to a reduction in housing supply and take Britain back to the record low levels of house-building seen when they were in Government.
Bob Neill is the MP for Bromley & Chislehurst and Vice Chairman of the Conservative party for Local Government.