Over on LabourList, Dan McCurry has an article urging grassroots Labour members to join his campaign to tackle unemployment, crime and lack of housing by repealing section 109 of the Town and Country Planning Act.
Now I love a grassroots-led campaign aimed at securing a technocratic amendment to parliamentary legislation to further the cause of social justice as much as anyone, but this is one campaign I won't be supporting.
I was baffled for days about the relevance of section 109 of the Town and Country Planning Act to the social evils that Dan mentioned (it is about 'Apportionment of compensation for depreciation' in case you were wondering), and he was kind enough to clarify that he meant section 106.
Now section 106 is basically about councils being able to secure contributions from developers to help improve local communities (there is a better definition here). For example, a council might require the developer to make a certain percentage of the new homes that they are building social or affordable housing, or to make a contribution towards the upkeep of the local roads, or schools or parks or whatever. Section 106 arrangements are responsible for as much as half of all social housing built in the UK.
Dan's case is that in the current economic climate, developers won't build new houses because they can't make (enough of) a profit on doing so, with the result that skilled workers are unemployed even though their skills are desperately needed. If the developers didn't have to worry about section 106, then they would make a profit out of building new housing developments, so they would hire people to build new homes. So we should put aside our understandable but misguided aspiration to increase the amount of social housing, and not obsess about elections or the House of Lords or things like that, and focus on getting more homes built, and hence more jobs for construction workers.
Amongst the objections to this is the fact that affordable housing requirements are dependent on a scheme being viable with them, and developers can already negotiate down a requirement if it would render a scheme unviable. This is happening increasingly without any amendment to section 106.
But quite apart from the fact that he's identified a barrier to house-building that doesn't really exist, there are significant negative consequences to repealing section 106. There is already a desperate shortage, and increasing need for, social housing - this would ensure that less gets built. And it would starve local communities of the funds which they need to manage new housing developments. Not to mention the fact that the history of housing policy in the UK is not awfully supportive of the idea that we should build as many houses as quickly as possible without regard for the longer term consequences.
McCurry's proposal in practical terms involves taking money away from local services and cutting funding for social housing in order to increase profits for property developers. This is an unpromising cause for a grassroots movement of Labour supporters to rally around.
There are simpler, more effective ways - be it through tax breaks or more directly by the government funding local councils to build more homes - to help increase work available for construction workers, while steering well clear of section 106 (and section 109) of the Town and Country Planning Act.