UK general election

"Whoever wins the general election will bring radical change for better, or worse"

The leading parties' manifestos contain bold pledges that will change Britain's cities for generations, says Phineas Harper. He takes a look at the architecture and housing policies ahead of the UK's general election.


Not for generations have the British faced such a profound political crossroads as the choice they must make on 12 December. Of the two main parties, one promises liberated markets, closer economic alignment with Trump's America and a hard Brexit with less immigration. The other proposes vast public investment, a "green industrial revolution" and a second referendum on EU membership.

There is no business as usual candidate in this race. With polls still roughly tied, the only certainty is that whoever wins the general election will bring radical change for better, or worse. One week from polling day, what can an architectural reading of the main parties' manifestos reveal about the choice voters face?

I have dug into the manifestos of four parties vying for power next Thursday, teasing out the urban and spatial implications in their pledges. The promised matrix of policies on climate, economics, immigration and housing speak of radically divergent visions for the cities and neighbourhoods and society of tomorrow's Britain.

If this election is a war for the soul of the United Kingdom, the future of urban policy is among its most vigorous battlegrounds

An open nation lush with billions of trees and housing as a right for all in the red corner. An island of pumped-up property bubbles, with police empowered to seize the homes of travellers, with more CCTV and more prison building, in the blue. If this election is a war for the soul of the United Kingdom, the future of urban policy is among its most vigorous battlegrounds.

Housing of course has been a burning topic for many years. As successive governments have failed to meet housing demand or stabilise prices, relentlessly rising rents have pushed families into poverty and exacerbated inequality.

This week the The Equality Trust reported that the richest one per cent of the population now own as much as the poorest 80 per cent – a mind boggling disparity with direct roots in the inequitable access to housing. Consequently, all the major manifestos throw some big numbers around about house building, but the devil is in the details over tenure and delivery.

Labour and the Green Party share a view that the key to solving the housing crisis lies in local authorities commissioning and managing housing again. In promoting their housing policies, Labour made explicit reference to Mikhail Riches' Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street which was led by Norwich City Council. Both parties are pledging to build 100,000 council houses a year, with Labour mooting an additional 50,000 from housing associations and others.

All the major manifestos throw some big numbers around about house building

The Liberal Democrats have set a long-term goal of 300,000 homes a year with an initial target of 100,000 but are vague on who will deliver these and how. The Conservatives are vaguer still, cutting their current target from 300,000 a year to a million over five years, of which we're told "hundreds of thousands" will be "affordable".

Affordable is a contested term in housing, which Labour are pledging to scrap. Under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, affordable was redefined in 2014 to mean 80 per cent of market value, which does little to bring prices within the reach of ordinary families.

None of the parties come anywhere close to the ambition of 1960s Conservative housing minister Keith Joseph who wanted the Tory government of his day to build 400,000 homes a year. However, it is clear that opinion is gradually edging back towards the political consensus that housing cannot be left to the private sector.

A less-trumpeted Tory proposal would allow groups of council estate residents to band together and buy whole buildings – effectively expanding the Right to Buy beyond individual households. This sits in stark contrast to the other parties who all pledge to abolish, or significantly weaken, Right to Buy.

Another unique Conservative pledge is for councils to use Section 106 money (a negotiable tax on big developments) to discount new homes for key workers. Section 106 is already controversial with local authorities under pressure to grant planning permission to projects just because they need the 106 cash. Passing that money back to the same developers who paid it in may further deplete council budgets and incentivise house price inflation.

The Tories are also the only party to explicitly unveil an overtly aesthetic architectural policy. They propose community design standards so that local authorities are "encouraged to build more beautiful architecture". Labour do not mention architectural beauty once but, unlike their rivals, have pledged a £1 billion Fire Safety Fund to "to fit sprinklers and other fire safety measures in all high-rise council and housing association tower blocks".

The Tories are also the only party to explicitly unveil an overtly aethetic architectural policy

Labour have, more broadly, centred their entire manifesto around a "Green Industrial Revolution". Addressing the climate emergency by 2030 is a consistent thread running through their policy agenda with major implications for architecture and construction should they win.

Labour's very first policy section opens with the statement that "energy use in buildings accounts for 56 per cent of the UK's total emissions, making it the single most polluting sector". Many environmentally-conscious architects will be thrilled that this nerdy but critical stat receives headline billing. It suggests a long-overdue serious interest from policy makers in the ecological impact of the built environment.

To develop the skills and knowledge needed to meet the climate emergency, Labour are promising three per cent of GDP going into research and development. This could be a game-changer for ecological construction techniques which suffer from a deficit of research investment across the sector.

The Conservatives on the other hand have put a cap on public investment at three per cent of GDP hoping that the private sector will lead the charge instead. They have set a target to achieve net zero by 2050 and summarise their climate emergency strategy with the statement "we believe that free markets innovation and prosperity can protect the planet".

Right to roam underscores the Greens' enthusiasm for a genuinely public public realm

The Green Party stand little chance of winning more than the one seat they already hold. However, their policies nonetheless are worth examining. From an urban point of view, one pledge sticks out – to expand the right to roam that is already law in Scotland. This would be a dramatic shift in UK public space provision, opening up huge chunks of locked off countryside.

Right to roam underscores the Greens' enthusiasm for a genuinely "public" public realm. Recent years have seen the erosion of civil liberties that came with the rise of POPS (Privately Owned Public Spaces). The Greens' pledge to "protect the right to peacefully protest" casts light on Conservatives, whose agenda for public space looks very different.

The Tories have promised to "make intentional trespass a criminal offence", a policy targeted at clamping down on nomadic traveller communities and protests. Architects and urbanists who have been arguing for more a permissive management of public space will be disappointed at this move which may be used to limit access to the urban space and even criminalise peaceful demonstrations.

Compounded by their pledge to invest in "new CCTV", the Conservatives have sketched out a vision of the British public realm that is more controlled and surveilled.

Brexit and wider immigration policies will have a huge impact on the sector

Many British architecture firms thrive by employing skilled designers from across the world, in particular the EU. Brexit and wider immigration policies will have a huge impact on the sector.

The Conservatives' headline pledge is to use a hard Brexit to bring down migration with a points system. While there are reassurances that certain professionals (medical and scientific workers) will still be able to obtain visas, the Tory migration strategy is clear: fewer foreigners.

It is quite a contrast to Labour, whose pledged second Brexit referendum is the UK's last shot at remaining in the EU. Even if Brits vote again to leave, Labour propose a much softer Brexit maintaining membership of the European customs union and freedom of movement.

More broadly, unlike in pre-2017 elections, Labour are striking a resolutely pro-immigrant tone, pledging to abolish migration targets and the hostile environment policies. This internationalism may tempt architects, many of whom fear less immigration will damage the profession.

In all, "architecture" is mentioned explicitly only twice in the Conservatives' manifesto and not at all in the other parties'. Amid the ongoing housing crisis, which will see 135,000 children homeless this Christmas and the climate emergency, architectural and urban policies matter more in this election than ever.

Having ploughed through all four manifestos, my take is that, on housing only the Labour Party has a comprehensive industrial strategy that marries bold targets on retrofit and new build, with the vast training and the research programmes that will be needed to enable them within ecological limits.

Labour have articulated a vision of Britain in which buildings are so much more than financialised investment vehicles for wealth accumulation

The Conservatives and Lib Dems have also chalked up big numbers but demonstrate none of the broader policy foundation that would show they mean business. Indeed homelessness has spiralled since those two parties came to power in 2010 with rough sleeping going up 169 per cent. And, of the 200,000 starter homes the Tories promised in 2015, not one has been built.

More broadly, I believe Labour has assembled a holistic manifesto in which architecture feeds into and from a more caring, more ecological society. A £1 billion fund for new and libraries and galleries opening up access to the arts.

Planting two billion trees which will be needed for the revolution in Cross Laminated Timber construction to wean itself off high-carbon imported wood. Freedom of movement maintaining Britain's rich connection to continental architectural culture.

Labour have articulated a vision of Britain in which buildings are so much more than financialised investment vehicles for wealth accumulation. Instead they show how architecture and urbanism can be among the central roots of a good society, supporting all citizens to participate in civic life in comfort and confidence. I'll vote for that!