Local Labour Party goes national over land banking ‘scandal’

The Hastings & Rye Constituency Labour Party (CLP) aims to table a motion at the national party conference in Brighton next month calling for local authorities to be given strengthened compulsory purchase powers when potential development land is left idle and vacant by its owners.

All local political parties agree that Hastings needs more housing. There are around 3,000 families on the council waiting list for homes. And Hastings Borough Council, under Labour Party control, appears intent upon promoting a number of controversial house-building schemes against vociferous local (and Conservative Party) opposition – at Harrow Lane, at Bulverhythe Lower Tier and at West Marina, to name just three. But there are also dozens of other brownfield sites across the borough zoned for housing development. In some cases permission has already been granted, representing around 1,500 potential homes, according to the CLP. 

The problem is that landowners are under no obligation to go ahead with development. In a rising market they may calculate that they gain by keeping the land idle as it rises in value. That’s in any event what many are doing – a scandal, say the CLP, which should be tackled by radical action. 

Eversfield Hospital site on West Hill Road
CREDIT: Dave Young

CLP resolution

Last month the general committee of the local party passed a resolution which they hope will be selected for debate at the national conference. It calls on the party to campaign nationally for a policy that would give local authorities “cost neutral powers” to intervene. Such landowners would be compelled to sell their land to the authority at a 10% discount and with full costs deducted, as a penalty for failing to use the land for the benefit of the community.

These powers could be applied to any land identified for development in the local plan when, for example, no attempt has been made to submit a planning application within two years of the plan’s adoption.

Andy Batsford, lead councillor for Housing and Homelessness, says: “The most common comment I receive from residents is ‘why don’t you build on the brownfield sites, like West Hill Road rather than sites like Lower Tier or Harrow Lane?’ 

“This policy campaign – for cost-neutral CPO [compulsory purchase order] powers for councils – is a powerful message that their concerns are heard, and that we as a Labour constituency party and Labour council will not be held hostage by landowners who are sitting on over 1,500 agreed planning applications for much needed homes across the town. 

“Maximise every site”

“The current CPO policy places all the financial risk on the council: the legal costs, taking the site to auction, the paying of fees; then, to add insult to injury, we have to pay compensation to the landowner for the inconvenience of taking this unused land off them. This leaves the land so expensive that no affordable homes would be viable on the site. 

“The truth is that this town’s need for real affordable homes is so acute that we must maximise every site we have.

“I’m proud to be taking this to the heart of the Labour Conference, demanding change and reclaiming the power over our land for the people of Hastings.”

“A challenge”

It remains to be seen whether the CLP’s motion will be selected for debate at the Brighton Conference as against hundreds of others submitted by other party delegations – Cllr Batsford describes that as a “challenge”. He has been looking for support from shadow housing minister Lucy Powell and from the Labour campaign for council housing. 

Rick Dillon, the CLP’s media officer, predicts that housing and related motions will feature in this year’s conference “because it’s the sort of issue that should unite all wings of the party”. The motion also points, he says, to recent revelations that one fifth of donations over the past ten years into Tory party coffers have come from property developers. But that, of course, cuts both ways. However enthusiastically the national Labour Party may greet and endorse the Hastings motion, what are the chances of it reaching the statute book while the Conservatives remain in power? 

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