Fitting the bill

No one applauds real commitment to help renting families more loudly than us. Labour’s proposal yesterday for a housing bill to tackle rip-off fees and poor standards and give renters more security ticks a lot of Shelter boxes. Coming on top of last year’s government pledges to clamp down on rogue landlords and this month’s new legislation on letting agents it’s more welcome evidence of an emerging political consensus  on the need to tackle problems in the private rented sector.

This week’s housing pledges are part of a package of ‘economic bills’ forming Labour’s ‘alternative Queen’s Speech’ to rebuild the economy. But sadly Labour has missed the opportunity to show the kind of radical leadership on housing that business leaders, economists, and even the Business Secretary have been crying out for over recent months.

There’s no doubt that housing one of the keys to economic recovery: what’s needed is bold action to deliver new homes, and lots of them. This would put the construction industry back on its feet, bring people back into work, get the housing market moving again, and provide young families with the homes they want and need.

Aside from the height of the credit crunch, house building starts are now at their lowest level since records began 30 years ago. Home ownership is down and dropping while private rents are high and rising. Millions of young people and families are priced out of a home of their own.

A bold commitment on housing would be a sure-fire way for the Opposition to show voters they are on their side. How about pipping Clegg to the post and running with his idea of a new generation of Garden Cities? The Olympic development shows that with political will it’s possible to deliver big construction projects quickly and well, and even to make them a point of national pride. You can even do it off the government balance sheet through development corporations.

Or what about letting local authorities borrow to build again? This has wide support, with advocates ranging from former Thatcher cabinet member Lord Jenkin to the Local Government Association. It can be done without increasing public debt significantly, and without undue risk, as councils would still be subject to the usual strict prudential borrowing limits.

The Comprehensive Spending Review in June is the perfect chance for both Labour and the Government to provide bigger and bolder alternatives for action on housing to get the economy moving. Meeting young families’ aspirations would have obvious political benefits for whichever side gets there first. And what’s more, the solutions are there, set out by everyone from Shelter to the CBI for all to see. The CSR is an opportunity for the Government to get on the front foot; it needs to show leadership.