Theft or freedom? Land reform for the right as well as the left

Theft or freedom? Land reform for the right as well as the left

The start of this month saw the publication of Land for the Many, a landmark report commissioned by the Labour Party and edited by George Monbiot. It gives a thorough account of the role of land in creating many of the problems Corbyn’s Labour has firmly in its sights – poverty, inequality, the climate crisis and unaffordable housing – and puts forward a huge range of solutions. Among them is a recommendation to reform the Land Compensation Act 1961 – a topic which will be familiar to regular readers of this blog and which was a key recommendation of Shelter’s own social housing commission back in January.

In Land for the Many, the idea behind reforming the 1961 Act is to enable public bodies (like councils) to acquire land at lower prices to provide homes, parks or other important public benefits. But while more public landownership is one possibility unlocked by amending the 1961 Act, it is far from the only use which could be made of this vital reform. In fact, the 1961 Act currently represents a critical barrier for anyone trying to build differently – including those in the private sector.

That’s why increasing numbers of thinkers and policy makers on the right (as well as on the left) are promoting land reform as the key to unlocking their solutions to England’s housing crisis. Shelter’s new Grounds for Change report features essays from some of these thinkers, including Will Tanner, Director of the centre-right think tank Onward.

In his essay ‘Using land reform to create places people love’, Tanner lays out the need for better design and more community infrastructure if we’re going to tackle the resentment people currently feel towards housebuilding. And the foundation of his vision? Reform of the Land Compensation Act 1961 – as outlined further in this blog for Shelter.

Reducing barriers to entry

Nicholas Boys Smith, director of social enterprise Create Streets, echoes this support for land reform in another essay. He calls for reform as part of a broader package of changes to the planning system, with the aim of reducing barriers to entry for new and small and medium-sized (SME) developers as well as self and custom-builders. In other words, land reform will improve competition in the housebuilding sector.

It’s not that there’s no place for the Berkeley Groups and Taylor Wimpeys of this world. But they can’t build all the homes we need on their own – indeed, it is not their job to – and land reform is necessary to create space for other actors, who currently struggle to get a look in.

Another Shelter blog this week highlights the results of our recent survey with council planners, who told us the cost of land is the single biggest barrier they face in getting new social homes built. But the situation is no different for SME builders trying to expand the supply of both market and sub-market homes. In its 2018 survey of SME housebuilders, the Federation of Master Builders found that ‘lack of available and viable (read: affordable) land’ was the most commonly cited barrier for the fourth year in a row.

A broad coalition for change

You don’t have to sign up to Shelter’s prescription of 3.1 million more social rent homes (although you should!) or favour public bodies as the builders of new homes to agree that land reform is both urgent and necessary. Name a major shift in the way we build homes you want to see and land reform will be at its heart.*

This is precisely what Shelter’s Grounds for Change report sets out to show. With contributors ranging from Crispin Truman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England to Councillor Leo Pollak, Southwark Council’s housing lead, we’re never going to want to develop exactly the same homes in exactly the same ways. But we do all agree on the mechanism needed to move forward: reform of the Land Compensation Act 1961.

While some commentators have condemned Labour’s land proposals as ‘state-sponsored theft’, the right should not turn away from land reform. Instead, it should champion its own versions of an idea whose time has come. Doing so holds out the potential to finally free the country from our housing crisis.

*Don’t believe us? Try us. Tweet us a problem with how England builds homes to @Shelter and look out for our explanation of the role of land in a future blog!