OPINION - Labour will build on green belt, says Starmer
Keir Starmer has built up a reasonably static 15-point lead in the polls without doing or saying anything too radical. This strategy has been vindicated by a strong, albeit not spectacular showing in local elections, where Conservative losses surpassed even Greg Hands’s attempts at expectations management. The Labour leader is, absent a material change in circumstances, the most likely next prime minister.
But to Starmer’s critics, this is not enough. He must be bolder, more exciting. Of course, daring is a double-edged sword. You may lose as many, if not more voters for each one you gain with a striking new policy. It is for good reason that most successful opposition leaders essentially run on a platform of ‘change without risk’. The former is not so attractive without the latter.
So it represents something of a change of pace to see Starmer declare that his party would plaster the green belt with tarmac and concrete. Okay, this isn’t quite what he said – more accurately, that a Labour government would grant local areas the power to build houses on the green belt where such development would not detract from “the beauty of our countryside”, such as car parks or similar plots of land. (For example, this car wash by Tottenham Hale is considered ‘green belt’).
Key to how this policy lands will be in the framing. If Labour can ram home a consistent line that housebuilding is about fairness and economic opportunity, it may trump concerns about trampling over our idyllic countryside. Still, a cursory glance at the polling surrounding the green belt tells you the political risk is high.
Yet it may prove worth it for a few reasons. First, the economic benefit. Britain really does need new homes, and that will only happen through changes to planning regulations. With more affordable houses to buy and rent comes other goodies such as a larger and more flexible labour pool, allowing businesses to hire, living standards rise and all of a sudden happy days are here again.
The second is political. Starmer is hoping that, much like with Right to Buy in the 1980s, a new generation of homeowners will show their gratitude by voting Labour for years to come. The market for NIMBY votes is not exactly underserved, and Starmer is already quietly relying on one of them, the Liberal Democrats, to win seats off the Tories in the South East.
Third is messaging. This provides another opportunity for Starmer to hammer one of his more consistent refrains, that while he is in charge of a united party, the prime minister is weak and in hock to the Tory right. That Rishi Sunak was forced to ditch plans for compulsory housebuilding targets following a backlash from his backbenchers and party members reinforces the point.
What is clear is that, unlike in previous elections, housing will be a key battleground issue. The NIMBY vote will, as ever, be strong and well-catered for. But for parties on the side of the ‘builders’, it will no longer be sufficient for manifestos to include a nice, large round number for how many homes they intend to build in undefined locations using non-existent powers.
Still, the challenge is no less daunting – actually building enough homes to keep pace with demand and population growth – while winning elections.
In the comment pages, Martha Gill says Holly and Phil have failed TV’s authenticity test – and driven the public mad in the process. Rohan Silva is glad Greggs has won its legal battle, but fears London is losing the nightlife war. While Natasha Devon warns exam stress is getting worse.
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