Angela Rayner’s ‘good news’ on housing should terrify the Tories

Labour's deputy leader is not the first MP to make a compelling case for solving Britain's broken housing market
Labour's deputy leader is not the first MP to make a compelling case for solving Britain's broken housing market - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Europe

Last week, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting was in these pages, promising to embrace the private and independent sectors as part of his NHS overhaul.

This week it was deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner’s turn, promising to revolutionise the housing market.

Healthcare and housing are, by a long way, the two areas where Labour seems most serious about reform. They are well-selected, as they happen to be the areas where reform is most needed.

But the electoral propositions are different. The Tories should be worried if Streeting succeeds. They should be absolutely terrified if Labour makes good on its pledge to build more homes.

Addressing the NHS’s woeful inadequacies would do a world of good for the millions of patients who are treated by the system – and the 1.5 million people who work within it, who are being let down by understaffing, terrible hours and poor compensation.

But this will be a painful process. Expect more strikes, more backlash, and major stand-offs if Streeting really does overhaul the UK’s biggest institution, which has not been made to produce meaningful efficiency gains for a long time.

Labour would eventually get credit for reforming the NHS – if they are willing to do what needs to be done – but they may face polling wobbles and electoral challenges long before that day arrives.

Housing is different: it is the “good news” story that has been waiting for decades to be realised.

Yes, there will be many instances of local backlash, but the benefits of building on a massive scale would quickly be felt. If done correctly, that could be enough to transform younger voters into life-long Labour supporters.

If you didn’t read Rayner’s piece in this paper yesterday, you must go back and take a look. It’s not just the promises the deputy leader makes – her pledges stem from an analysis of the housing crisis that is, frankly, spot on.

It’s the kind of piece you usually read from a policy analyst who has been tracking the consequences of Britain’s stifled housing market for many years – or, on occasion, from a backbench MP who sticks their head above the parapet to point out that there are people in their 40s who still don’t know when their deposit will be big enough to afford a small flat.

No, Rayner is not the first MP in her party to make such a compelling case. Back in the Theresa May years, Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh would make a point of turning up at the Conservative Party Conference to talk to the party’s grassroots about the housing crisis.

Tory MPs weren’t taking this issue seriously, she felt, so why not not let them hear the case for more housebuilding from a Labour MP?

Meanwhile, Keir Starmer has spent months adopting the Yimby (Yes In My Back Yard) label.

It’s a direct confrontation – and warning shot – to the anti-building coalition, which has had huge success while the Tories have been in power, ripping up planning permissions and stopping new building projects before they can even get off the ground.

Starmer has spent months adopting the Yimby label in direct confrontation to the anti-building coalition
Starmer has spent months adopting the Yimby label in direct confrontation to the anti-building coalition - Labour Party

But a real acknowledgment of how much the housing crisis is setting young people back, and how reform of the planning system is needed: it’s not something we’ve heard from such a senior politician for a very long time.

Before I get carried away, there are plenty of holes in Labour’s plans – and indeed yellow flags that suggest they are not fully prepared to do what is needed to deliver 1.5 million new homes.

This week’s emphasis on a “Freedom to Buy” scheme is a worrying sign that Labour may fall into the same trap as the Tories of making the housing crisis worse.

The scheme – which extends the Conservatives’ “mortgage guarantee” by making it easier to get a mortgage with a 5pc deposit – is likely to have the side-effect of stoking more demand in the market while doing nothing about supply.

In this scenario, some lucky first-time buyers will manage to get on the property ladder – but many more could be further priced out, as prices just rise further.

Meanwhile, the party’s intention for many of these homes to be built in “new towns” suggests a lurch towards state planning that fails to take into account where people actually want to live.

While the ambition to “level up” areas outside the South East has plenty of merit, there is a danger that housebuilding becomes part of this strategy, and homes are ultimately built in areas with far less demand.

New homes have to follow the market: it’s simply not going to happen the other way around.

But despite boasting some plans that are unlikely to move the dial, it’s significant that Rayner also mentions building on “grey belt land” – pieces of the green belt that are anything but green.

It’s something Labour has talked about before: a willingness to override housing and planning rules to build homes on intensively-farmed agricultural land or abandoned car parks that somehow got classified as “green belt”.

But they didn’t need to intentionally refresh memories of the idea during an election – not least because it is one of the most controversial aspects of planning reform.

The decision to do so, again, suggests a seriousness on Labour’s part about recognising how important it is to add to the UK’s housing stock – and shows a willingness to fight on behalf of younger generations to do what’s necessary to get homes built.

And perhaps only Labour can have this fight. The party’s electoral base is not dominated by those who would prioritise, above almost anything else, seeing the value of their home surge.

Of course, if the polls are anything like correct, Labour MPs may soon be finding themselves representing some Nimby areas once deemed comfortable Tory seats. If that day comes, it will be a real test for the leadership of the party, to stick to the promises they made to get to such a position.

If they’re savvy, they won’t be thinking about the frustration with the status quo that got them into No 10; they’ll be thinking about what kind of legacy might keep them there.

The most powerful one, by far, would be to become the new party of home ownership.