With his pledge to build 100,000 council houses a year, Labour leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn is enthusing architects. Laura Mark reports
More from: Can Jeremy Corbyn solve the housing crisis?
Jeremy Corbyn must have developed an ultra-thick skin since emerging as the frontrunner in the Labour leadership race. New Labour’s spin doctor supremo Alastair Campbell says it is an ‘absolute certainty’ that Corbyn cannot win the general election in 2020; Tony Blair has taken multiple potshots at him; and Gordon Brown warned he would damage international relations.
In fact in recent weeks Corbyn, the opinion-splitting, one-time outsider for leader, has come under fire from all corners – even Wikipedia’s boss branded him ‘completely bonkers’ in a stinging attack on Twitter. Yet he remains the favourite to win the race, consistently topping opinion polls.
Against all odds the 66 year old – a one-time planning chairman of Haringey Council – is the favourite to triumph when the winner is revealed on 12 September.
Architects have also been won over by his brand of ‘Corbynomics’ and social housing-focused policies. In a recent AJ survey, 74 per cent of respondents said he was their first choice for leader. Yvette Cooper came a distant second with 10 per cent support, Andy Burnham had 9 per cent and Liz Kendall registered 6 per cent.
Though he stops short of endorsing Corbyn, architect and Labour peer Richard Rogers says the MP is by far the most impressive of the leadership candidates and the only one to set out a clear vision on key political issues such as quality of life and wealth inequality.
‘The fact that he is so popular shows that the Labour party needs much more deep thinking and needs to show more courage in tacking the country’s problems,’ Rogers says.
‘The most important thing is to get back to the roots of Labour, which is about distributing wealth and being pro-welfare.’
He adds: ‘The rest of the candidates are unbelievably boring … but they are now reacting to Corbyn and realising that you have to have ideas. The key question is how you should tackle the tremendous divide between the 90 per cent of Britain and its 10 per cent of top earners. But on that the other candidates have been mealy mouthed.’
Corbyn has been on the political scene for more than three decades, holding his Islington North seat since 1983, having been re-elected eight times. In May’s general election he increased his share of the vote to claim a huge 21,000 majority. This is despite – or perhaps because – he has voted against his party more than 500 times. Corbyn is his own man.
But does he have what it takes to become the next Labour leader? Given his history of disloyalty, can he command loyalty himself? If he gets into power how does he plan to tackle the housing crisis? And what do architects think of his far-reaching left agenda?
Of all the candidates, Corbyn has the most detailed housing policies, outlined in a nine-page manifesto. He proposes ‘a radical rebooting of home construction’ through reinvigorating councils and giving them the power to build homes again. Like his rival Burnham – the only other candidate to release anything near as detailed housing commitments – Corbyn also suggests lifting the borrowing cap on local authorities to allow this building to happen.
Giving councils the right and means to commission housing is, he says, the most efficient way of achieving the minimum 240,000 new homes the UK needs each year to turn around the housing shortage. Corbyn’s ambitious aim is for local authorities to build 100,000 of these new homes.
But he doesn’t believe the housing crisis can be solved just through building. ‘The worsening crisis is more complex than that,’ Corbyn states in his manifesto.
‘We also need to address problems of inequality, regional disparities of income and wealth, taxation policy, the labour market, our social security system and planning regulations.’
A staunch critic of the current government’s moves to extend right-to-buy, Corbyn wants to scrap the controversial policy. His manifesto calls for an end to the selling off of council homes – which he blames for massively depleting social housing stocks. Since 2012, he points out, 29,505 council homes have been sold off, but only 3,422 replaced.
While his critics complain that his housing policies are largely uncosted, Corbyn has also mooted a National Investment Bank to support new-build housing projects. The funding would be available to both councils and developers so long as tough conditions on affordable housing were met.
Corbyn’s attitude towards housing and social issues has helped him gain the support of the traditionally left-leaning profession.
He is the best hope Labour has right now
Past RIBA president Angela Brady believes Corbyn ‘is the best hope Labour has right now’, remarking: ‘His housing policy looks promising and would bring a fairer society to Britain, which is needed. He makes all the right points about current inward investment and empty homes and the lack of diversity for the future for cities like London.’
She adds: ‘Britain needs a strong leader that recognises the problems of a lack of social housing and who knows how to kickstart sustainable, low-energy, low-carbon housing.’
But Corbyn’s 3,370-word housing manifesto does not mention design or architecture once. Are architects kidding themselves about what he could do in this area? It does seem as if they are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Cullinan Studio’s Robin Nicholson, who lives in Corbyn’s constituency, says: ‘Will he be a force for architecture? That depends largely on us architects, but I have no evidence that he dislikes the idea of good design that brings lower energy, affordable homes with good public transport to hand.
‘Whatever the outcome, I can see nothing but good coming from Jeremy having a vision about a more equitable and enjoyable future for all.’
Simon Warren, senior lecturer in architecture at Leeds Beckett University, adds that Corbyn is popular with architects because of his socially minded policies.
‘Corbyn can accelerate the growth of architects discovering and rediscovering our social purpose,’ he says. ‘This would come through policy changes, particularly to house building and environmental issues. A Labour government with Corbyn leading it would work well in collaboration with the profession.’
But despite the support for Corbyn’s vision, many are concerned he cannot deliver.
‘[His manifesto] is far too broad,’ says architect and Labour supporter Tony Fretton. ‘He has a total lack of ministerial experience and, as a habitual dissenter, it is unsure how much loyalty he could get from his party.
Corbyn’s policies are far more skilfully crafted than Burnham’s
‘The opposition will require not aspirations but real political skills if it is to achieve even part of the objectives he sets out. Cooper and Burnham have them, and Burnham’s policies cover the same areas as Corbyn’s but are far more skilfully crafted.’
New London Architecture chairman Peter Murray worries that Corbyn, who has said he favours a brownfield first development strategy, seems to be shying away from tackling issues of the green belt.
‘Even a firebrand like Corbyn treads carefully tackling the green belt issue,’ he says.
‘The green belt is one of the greatest pieces of planning legislation in the world and we do it a disservice by not adapting it to current requirements while ensuring its basic tenets are protected. The topic has proved too toxic for the Tories; I hope it isn’t for Corbyn.’
And Russell Curtis, director of RCKa, says Corbyn’s policies ‘lack realistic solutions’.
‘The section on planning is woefully thin and offers no proposals as to how our dysfunctional development control system can be reformed,’ he says. ‘I was expecting to see some innovative thinking, but this just feels a little half-baked.’
However, Tom Holbrook, founder of 5th Studio, believes if Corbyn wins he could offer an exciting alternative vision.
‘Corbyn and his team present a fresh range of strategies restating the aspiration of a socially just society,’ he says.
Holbrook is evidently in the majority as far as the profession is concerned. Whatever the result, and regardless of whether his policies are actually deliverable, Corbyn has clearly won the architects’ vote.
Who is Jeremy Corbyn?
Born 26 May 1949
Place of birth Chippenham,Wiltshire
Entered House of Commons 9 June 1983
Constituency Islington North
Against tuition fees, Trident, the Iraq War, austerity measures, HS2, fracking, privatisation of the health service, zero hours contracts, the bedroom tax, benefit caps, and right-to-buy
For renationalisation of the rail network and energy companies, action on climate change, increased housebuilding, rent controls, a publicly-funded NHS
Backed by Trade Unions - Unite, Unison, Communication Workers Union (CWU) and Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Prison Officers Association (POA), and Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA), former London mayor Ken Livingstone, singer Charlotte Church, musician Brian Eno, historian Mary Beard, and film director Ken Loach
What the leadership manifestos say about housing
- Wants a minimum of 240,000 new homes to be built each year, of which at least 100,000 should be council homes
- Suggests the borrowing cap placed on local authorities in relation to the construction of new council homes should be lifted
- Favours reducing social housing tenants’ right-to-buy entitlements
- Wants to see reduction in subsidies available to buy-to-let landlords
- Suggests land released by the new Domesday Book project should be entirely reserved for council housing
- Plans to introduce new taxes and compulsory purchase rights to stop the practice of land-banking
- Proposes new tax powers for local authorities aimed at discouraging the ‘buy-to-leave’ phenomenon
- Wants to reintroduce regional house-building targets
- Plans to launch a National Investment Bank, which could support new-build projects with low interest rates on offer to councils and developers
- Pledges ‘an affordable home for all to rent or own’ achieved through ‘the most ambitious housing policy since the post-war period’
- Plans to remove borrowing caps to encourage a resurgence in local-authority led construction
- Opposes the Conservative’s right-to-buy policy
- Wants to create a National Housing Commission to drive progress with housing delivery
- Proposes to develop ‘rent-to-own’ mortgages to allow homes to be bought without deposits in programmes run in partnership with councils and housing associations
- Suggests Labour’s election manifesto pledge to increase house‑building to 200,000 units a year by 2020 did not go far enough and that 300,000 is the ‘revolution’ needed
- Policies refer to 2 million new homes over a decade
- Supports new eco towns and garden cities
- Recognises supply as a ‘huge issue’
- Plans to improve the way the private-rented sector works
- Wants to rebalance the proportion of government spending on housing benefit against that given direct investment in house-building (95 per cent to 5 per cent respectively)
Industry figures evaluate Jeremy Corbyn’s housing policies
Tom Holbrook, founder, 5th Studio
‘It is incredibly exciting to hear a politician present an alternative position to the Neo-Liberal paradigm that has prevailed across all parties since I was in short trousers - a paradigm that has fetishised the market and sought to shrink the role of the state.
It is exciting to hear a politician present an alternative position
‘Like sleepers waking from a bad dream, Corbyn and his team present a fresh range of strategies re-stating the aspiration of a socially just society. His housing policy begins to address market failure in terms of delivery, the affordability crisis and housing security for those in the rental sector. The policy addresses head-on the forced sale of council land, and the economic apartheid that is rapidly destroying London’s social mix. Together these seek to reverse the disastrous effects of the 1980 Housing Act, which saw the end of council housebuilding and the onset of the caustic Right to Buy programme: the roots of our present housing crisis.
‘Corbyn imagines a socially just and well-educated state which enables its citizens: for this the proposed restoration of higher education grants is critical. A national investment bank promoting state investment in housing and re-nationalised infrastructure is a hugely intelligent and effective economic policy. I would welcome more work on how this integrates with an ambitious environmental policy. A key challenge would be how a strategic enabling role could be restored to the state, requiring the development of many new skills in a denuded and demoralised public sector. I believe that the discipline of architecture could play a huge role in helping forge those skills.’
Ben Derbyshire, managing partner, HTA
‘Neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Tessa Jowell really hit the mark unfortunately. This is a shame because the Tories are effectively operating a truly right-wing set of housing and planning policies that, so far as I am aware, was never comprehensively aired in their manifesto. It would be desirable for the opposition to field an effective alternative but both Corbyn and Jowell suffer from the usual democratic deficit. Housing and planning policies suffer from the problem that the balance remains in favour of the entitlement of those who are already well housed to resist the opportunity of those who are not.
He is cowed by the taboo that prevents a rational discussion
‘Corbyn’s policies contain the usual contradictions - for example, councils will struggle, alongside everyone else, to build more because the industry does not have the skills to do so. And, yes, we need more land for housing but he is cowed by the taboo that prevents a rational discussion about redefining the relationship between town and country - despite great examples like Cambridge which show how this can be done well.
‘I’d like to see politicians elevate housing delivery to a Cabinet post and then construct a cross cutting and integrated plan for delivery of more supply. This should delegate the powers necessary to do so to the level of city regions and empower mayoralties to tax, plan and spend to do so. And we should have the courage to support and empower the only area where there is potential capacity in the system - that is small and medium sized enterprises. Let a thousand flowers bloom!’
Charles Holland, co-founder, Ordinary Architecture
‘Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign proposals on housing are frankly like a breath of fresh air. Far from being nostalgic or naive they seem acutely aware of our current housing problems and have clear some clear proposals for what to do about them. Levels of housing provision have fallen dramatically since 1979 when the Conservatives essentially stopped building public housing. If you look at the statistics for this it’s clear that the private sector has not increased to fill the gap. So housing clearly needs to be a combination of public and private provision. And governments need to regulate on issues such as rent control, overseas speculation and environmental targets. I also agree that this is most acute in the south east and regional disparities of economic activity need to be addressed too.
‘At present the market is iniquitous and wastes huge amounts of money through housing benefit. Corbyn is right to point out that this is absolutely not the fault of people on housing benefit but the result of successive governments to provide adequate housing.
‘So, I agree that a public house building programme is required. To do this there would need to be investment in the public sector in general. Local Authorities need to have the right skills and expertise to procure good housing and that requires investment rather than budget cuts.
He doesnt have much to say about where housing would be built
‘Having said that, I think the policy document is quite broad brush and probably put together quickly. It doesn’t have much to say about where the houses should be built for instance. Land availability and planning are big issues here which involve difficult decisions about conservation. I would also like to see more support for other forms of development such as community land trusts. Breaking up the monopolies in the speculative housing sector is important and could open up more interesting models including self-build as well as smaller, more innovative developers. I would see the state’s role here as strategic - enabling good things to happen - as well as direct in terms of direct funding of public housing.
‘Finally I think there needs to be more commitment to the quality of housing needed and for the value of architecture and design. As well as specific commitments to environmental performance we need ones for standards. We also need a review of procurement processes which puts more emphasis on building decent housing rather than supposedly risk-free delivery.’
Teresa Borsuk, partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards
‘Jeremy Corbyn. Islington’s and so PTE’s local MP who has suddenly taken centre stage. Doubtless engaging. He comes over as a contender that says what he thinks and believes. He seems not to be a puppet. His position results directly from the weakness of his competition.
The crisis in housing is the result of years and years of broken policy
‘But what about his Housing Policy? It’s full of laudable and pithy statements —‐the headings are apposite—‐but it lacks detail. Is it a policy? It invites comment and ideas. It’s perhaps more interesting in what it doesn’t say than in what it does. It doesn’t for example challenge our obsession with home ownership; homes being high value investment assets distorting our values. It skirts the problems of procurement and the planning system. Above all it never really gets to the core of implementation.
‘The crisis in housing is the result of years and years of broken policy. It’ll take at least as many years to resolve. With this offering Jeremy Corbyn will not become prime minister on a housing crisis ticket but then nor will anyone else.’
Melanie Leech, chief executive, British Property Federation
‘We would support a few of Corbyn’s policies, such as a solid investment programme in housing, including affordable. This is something that all parties should be putting in place, and we hope that it will be forthcoming in the Comprehensive Spending Review in November.
‘There are aspects of Corbyn’s policies, though, that are more worrying. We would be concerned that policies such as rent controls would scare off investment in the build-to-rent sector, which has the potential to deliver a significant amount of new homes and attract as much as £30 billion investment. Plans to extend Right to Buy to private sector property and any Right to Buy individual landlords’ buy-to-let property are probably unworkable, and no doubt do not accord with European Human Rights law.
‘Whoever the next Labour leader is, when they take up position we would like to see them set out a very pragmatic blueprint for housing. Labour did this pre-election, in the form of the Lyons Review, and they should be using that as the basis for building their policies again.’
Steve Sanham, development director, Hub Group
‘For me Corbyn is interesting…a politician who stands for something, for basic human values, and for strong communities. As a property industry we should be standing firmly in his corner if our role is the creation of homes and places for people to be happy and communities to be functional.
To be honest, I haven’t a clue what the other three stand for…they all kind of blend into one, and that for me is why Corbyn will win. His views on housing are basic and people focused, again an eminently sensible place to start from – the notion that homes should be for people, not for profit. The problem we have (or might have) is that at the moment the majority of new build housing is delivered by the private sector…who by their (our) very nature have to make a return for the investment put in. That jars with the need for more affordable Affordable Housing in a world with no grant, and with the ideas of capping rents. The notion therefore of the public sector being encouraged to step back up and take a leading role in the delivery of homes for the most vulnerable in our society has to make sense. The private sector will always have other drivers outside of the humanist agenda – and that is the way things work for now.
Discount Corbyn at your peril
‘My thoughts – Discount Corbyn at your peril. Whether Labour want him or not, he is capturing the sentiment of a generation of disenfranchised young people, and disappointed older socialists. Many of the former not seeing a future under the current paradigm (particularly when it comes to home ownership), and the latter being comfortable enough to start caring again.’
Clive Betts, Labour MP and chairman of the Communities and Local Government select committee
‘Jeremy Corbyn has put forward a real mix of policies on housing including things this government would support and existing Labour party policy. There are also some gaps and contradictions. He talks about building 240,000 homes a year – something most people would sign up to – but misses out on saying whether government money would be used to build these houses.
‘The removal of the [local authority] borrowing cap would only tackle part of this challenge. I’d also be concerned that rent caps would reduce investment in the private rented sector.
‘If Jeremy were to win [the Labour leadership contest] it would be a completely new world because he’s never had a position of authority or shown any interest in having one before.’
David Birkbeck, Design for Homes
‘His attack on the London register of public sector land hits the mark. Selling public assets to drive down the deficit is short-termism compared with engineering how that land can best provide more homes at prices more Londoners can afford.
‘But most developers in London will hold as little land as possible as it locks up too much capital so any suggestion he can increase production by taxing plots with permission will have little effect where it’s most needed.
‘He’d be better off targeting the repackaging of sites as people build higher and higher land values in a high stakes game of pass the parcel in boom times - land traders who revisit planning to add more development should share more of the uplift, not just the builders they sell it on to who pay CIL etc. Too many sites go through this.’
Chris Brown, Igloo Regeneration
‘Corbyn’s main success so far has been to shift the boundary of political debate in relation to austerity economics. Many of his ideas are economically rational, populist and challenge the prevailing neoliberal economic groupthink.
His policy mix will be constrained by the lack of skills and land
‘His housing policies are something of a Smorgasbord of recent left of centre thought. A mixed economy of increased supply, of genuinely affordable housing in particular, to overcome the supply constraints imposed by the dominant sell one build one housebuilder model. This policy mix will definitely help but will also be constrained by the lack of skills and land in London and the south east of England where demand is greatest.
‘This is particularly true for council housing in London where the capacity of councils to build is extremely patchy and will take time to grow. Councils like Camden show that high design quality council housing is possible but other councils are delivering over priced poor quality design due to their lack of in house skills.
‘A win for Corbyn may well galvanise the anti austerity vote for change as we have seen in countries like Spain and Greece but he will have to battle against substantial media opposition. He seems more likely to shift the terms of the debate rather than to trigger a Social Democratic Party 1980s style split within Labour. The political centre is well to the right compared with 40 years ago. Corbyn may turn out to represent just a small leftwards pressure on the tiller.’
Nick Johnson, principal, Nick Johnson Consulting
‘Corbyn bashing from the ‘establishment’ is seemingly popular. I consider myself to be neither..part of the establishment nor a Corbyn basher..however there isn’t a government of either persuasion who has got to grips with the real issues in the housing market over the last two decades. I remember being in a car being driven round Manchester with the deputy governor of the Bank of England 10 years ago when he admitted they had “no idea what was going on in the housing market”..the Corbyn rhetoric is no departure and, coming from left leaning insulated Islington ‘Westminster’, no surprise.
‘The principle enemy of ‘affordability’ is debt supply. Willing lenders funding gushingly over confident London buyers coupled with ‘cash’ rich overseas buyers is a rude combination. It creates an inappropriate, hypnotic, mawkish effervescence that is in desperate need of a reality check. They were the portents of our last ‘never-to-happen’ crisis of funding confidence.
Corbyn’s advisors need to tread carefully
‘It is not a ‘housing supply’ issue. Its not a matter of the number of new starts..it is more a matter of the monied money men making more money from lending more money on the never-ending money merry-go-round. Whoever Corbyn’s advisors are, they need to tread carefully and pull in advice from economists who properly understand the ‘realeconomik’ of the UK housing market. They need to escape the comfort zone, their armchair ease, of their Islington-Westminster middle aged myopia. On the evidence of their published ‘Crorbynesto’, they are struggling.’
Andy von Bradsky, PRP Architects
‘There is clearly an appetite for a new political dimension that cannot be ignored. His messages resonate with voters that have felt neglected over successive parliamentary cycles especially the younger generation. The failures of financial markets and market led policies, and the growing disparity between rich and poor, nowhere better evidenced than in the housing market, fuels the conviction that a new radical approach is justified.
‘The policy document raises a number of issues that have been well articulated in other reports leading up to the election and many will agree with the sentiment of his policies, if not the means of achieving his aims. At least he has a plan.
To expect councils to provide at least 50 per cent of the houses we need is fanciful
‘However to expect councils to provide at least 50 per cent of the houses we need is fanciful. It is difficult to envisage how a surge in council led housing could be delivered in practice even if there was huge political support for it. The skills have long departed and there would need to be a Herculean effort and a significant increase in resources to revive local authority capability. Far better to emphasise the need for new, re-energised and powerful partnerships between public and private sector to make the most of private sector skills harnessed for the public good.
‘The policy appears London centric (to appeal to the Mayoral electorate too) and not enough is said about housing challenges elsewhere in the UK, with tacit support for devolution and regionality, a popular emerging policy that should be encouraged. It is disappointing that there is no reference to design quality and standards, as we need quality as well as quantity.
‘Were he to become Labour leader I doubt that this plan will ever be realised in its current form.’