‘Labour can’t have their cake and eat it’: housing crisis will force party into planning rows

<span>The site of the planned Morden Wharf development of 1,500 homes in Greenwich, south-east London.</span><span>Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer</span>
The site of the planned Morden Wharf development of 1,500 homes in Greenwich, south-east London.Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Every Wednesday, just before noon, Heavenly Tucker has a flicker of hope. Will today be the day she finally finds her own home? But after waiting more than two years, she is not optimistic when her alarm goes, reminding her to log on to Greenwich council’s housing website and bid for whatever properties she can.

The 26-year-old cafe manager still lives with her mother; she is single and has no dependants, so is a low priority. Renting privately would mean coming up with £1,300 a month, and even with two jobs she cannot afford that much.

“I’m getting tired of it,” she said. “I’ve been talking with my friends about moving to a flat in Brighton, but I’m a London girl and my mum is disabled so I need to be near her.”

Tucker works at Sugar Studios, a film and TV studio in the Greenwich peninsula in south-east London, and next door is an array of car parks that could be a solution to her problem. Developers have plans to build 1,500 homes in Morden Wharf, with 35% earmarked as affordable.

It is a brownfield site – exactly the sort of place that both Labour and the Conservatives say should be a priority for housing. And yet the plans put forward in 2021 by the developer U and I Group to build four tower blocks up to 36 storeys high were objected to by the local MP.

That MP was Labour’s Matthew Pennycook, the shadow housing minister, who was campaigning last week with party leader Keir Starmer on the pledge to build 1.5m new homes in the next five years, create new towns and give first-time buyers priority on newly built residences.

Starmer said building new homes would “require tough action” and Labour’s manifesto talks of making “full use of intervention powers to build the houses we need”.

Pennycook’s chief objection was that the towers were too tall and would affect the landscape around the Maritime Greenwich world heritage site. The Old Royal Naval College is about half a mile away and the tower blocks would be substantially higher than others in the area, although not quite as tall as the Canary Wharf skyline just across the Thames.

If Starmer wins on 4 July, there may be other Morden Wharfs to deal with, and even if Labour MPs do not oppose developments in their constituencies, a Starmer government would face opposition.

“Labour can’t just have their cake and eat it,” said Rosie Pearson, co-founder of the Community Planning Alliance, an umbrella organisation for local activist groups.

“They have to accept that there will always be issues about applications, and planning is about balance. Therefore, communities should have their say and those balances should be weighed up. Matthew Pennycook has illustrated that brilliantly here.

“But if Labour are wanting to build at any cost and they think communities are pointless, then they can’t allow that – and that would make him hypocritical.”

Although Pennycook was not available to talk about Morden Wharf, in a parliamentary debate last month he said Labour “will certainly not ignore the views of residents when it comes to planning proposals”.

“There are people who oppose development under any circumstances, and we are clear that we will take them on,” said Pennycook in the Commons. “There is a wider group of people who oppose bad development, and we must change the offer to them.”

Experts such as Anthony Breach, associate director atthe Centre for Cities thinktank argue that developers should automatically have the right to build properties of a certain type and size within set areas, removing the need for lengthy planning applications.

“Our planning system is quite unusual by the standards of the rest of the developed world and we do also have an unusually bad housing crisis,” he said. “In the UK, even if you follow the rules, you can still be denied planning permission, which creates a bottleneck, a chill on new development.”

But such a wholesale change would take time to introduce and Breach said some of Labour’s ideas, such as reintroducing housebuilding targets for councils and making planners consider national issues as well as local ones, would help create more new homes.

The proposal to create new towns would take years, he added. “There’s a reason Milton Keynes took 20 years to deliver. You’ve got to build all the infrastructure first – roads, sewers, schools, police stations.”

The best place to build new homes is in places with the highest demand, Breach said. “That’s why green belt reform is promising.”

Debates about planning might seem arcane to people whose lives are trapped by Britain’s housing crisis.

Ntakobajira Cobohwa and her three children have been living in a one-bedroom flat in a Clapham tower block in south-west London and she first started trying to find a larger place 11 years ago. Cobohwa, who works as a meals supervisor in one of her children’s schools, has asked Lambeth council to help her find a larger place, without success.

“My kids can’t bring a friend here – where can I put them?” she said. They all sleep in the same room, with her son, 13, and daughters, 11 and nine, in a three-tier bunk bed. “My daughter is getting older and I worry about her privacy,” she said.

But at least her flat is warm: about 8 million people live in 3.7m dangerous homes that are in disrepair, are unsanitary or have outdated sewage facilities or fire hazards, according to the Safer Homes Now campaign, a coalition of charities.

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But although Labour has pledged to spend an extra £6.6bn in the next five years on upgrading the least energy-efficient homes, that will still leave 6.6 million people living in 2.9m dangerous homes, according to an analysis by the Centre for Ageing Better, part of the Safer Homes Now campaign.

Poor housing leads to illness and further strain on the NHS: last year, for example, the Mersey and West Lancashire NHS trust spent £84,500 helping patients with lung problems to heat their homes.Dr Carole Easton, chief executive at the Centre for Ageing Better, said the UK had “some of poorest quality homes in terms of energy efficiency in all of western Europe”.

She added: “This is not just a housing issue – it is a critical electoral issue in terms of improving the nation’s health, boosting the economy and tackling climate change.”

Henry Gregg, director of external affairs at Asthma + Lung UK, said: “Poverty is driving the worst death rates from lung conditions in Europe. Respiratory infections can thrive in colder temperatures and poorly ventilated, damp environments. If someone is exposed long-term to colder temperatures, damp and mould, this can affect their immune response and hamper their body’s ability to fight off lung infections.”

For those at the mercy of the gradually shrinking private rental sector, high demand means huge rents and insecurity, particularly in southern England. In response, nearly a third of 25- to 29-year-olds live with their parents. Those who do not are struggling. One 30-year-old working in Greenwich said she had spent three months looking for a room in a houseshare via apps such as SpareRoom and on social media, and seldom even got a reply.

Labour plans to deliver a new renters reform bill, which had been going through parliament when the general election was called, and its deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said the party would stop landlords pitting renters against each other to drive up prices.

Ben Twomey, chief executive of campaign group Generation Rent, welcomed the 1.5m homes pledge but added that Labour “must deliver more homes that are affordable and allow those of us hurting the most right now to escape the renting crisis. “Commitments to ban bidding wars and empower renters to challenge rent increases have the potential to stop exploitation while more homes are built, but tenants need clear protections from unaffordable rents.”