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What does the Queens Speech mean for housing?

Despite presenting a large volume of legislation, overall the policy proposals in the Queens Speech will do very little to address the underlying causes of our country’s housing crisis.  Labour Housing Group has long argued for systemic change in the supply of genuinely affordable housing (the planning system and housing finance), reform of the benefits system, regulation of the private rented sector and is campaigning for housing to become a human right. 

The legislation proposed in the Queen’s Speech will not address the challenge of a desperate shortage of genuinely affordable homes, the poor quality and energy inefficiency of all housing stock and the growing problems of homelessness and temporary accommodation.  The legislative programme does not bring forward ideas for the failing social security system which is leaving families having to choose between heating and eating.  I have set out the outline of what is expected in each of the Bills and then highlighted what’s missing.

The Renters Reform Bill is expected to abolish ‘no-fault’ evictions by removing Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988.  We have heard this before and we must hold this Government to their promise to now deliver this.  The Bill also proposes to reform possession grounds for landlords – it is not clear what these will be and how the Bill will tackle the issues with administration of evictions. The proposal for a legally binding Decent Homes Standard in the Private Rented Sector is certainly welcome but currently lacks detail for how this will be enforced, how the enforcement will be funded and how the works to ensure the Decent Homes Standard will be administered or paid for.

Similarly, the introduction of a new Ombudsman for private landlords to resolve disputes could be a positive step forward but experience from the Housing Ombudsman, under-resourced and under-powered and struggling to keep up with the flow of escalated complaints from social landlords, suggests that unless this is properly funded this will create more uncertainty for renters.

The Social Housing Regulation Bill attempts to give more focus on consumer standards. With plans to enable the Regulator to intervene with landlords who are performing poorly on consumer issues there is hope for the many residents who struggle to secure a decent level of repair service from their landlord.  This is a u-turn from the Coalition Government abolishing the Tenants Services Authority in 2010. 

The impact of this Bill will only really be felt by tenants once the new powers and functions come through the Social Housing Regulator. Labour Housing Group will work with Labour MPs to make the case that the Social Housing Regulator is properly funded to deliver this expanded role.  Enabling the Regulator to inspect landlords is encouraging – the tenants that I represent who receive a poor repairs service would welcome the chance to call for an inspection and to see the outcome of that inspection.

This Bill still has gaps.  There is no stated role of Local Authorities or Local Councillors who are often the first to hear about the impact of poor consumer standards. It is also silent on the role of local authorities with housing association disposals – local authorities have a responsibility to assess housing needs for their local areas and planning powers to secure affordable homes but there is no requirement for housing associations or the Social Housing Regulator to consult local authorities on the impact of disposals. Finally, this Bill is a missed opportunity to invest in tenant engagement including a requirement for tenants to be on Housing Association Boards or to have say on local management decisions.

The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill promises mostly administrative changes to monitoring levelling up, alongside tinkering at the edges of the planning system. Anyone committed to seeing more affordable homes built will despair at the lack of ambition from this Bill. The idea of organising votes on a street by street basis to determine planning applications will just bring in unnecessary bureaucracy to an under-resourced planning system.

The focus should have been on supporting clear policies which prioritise affordable homes and high-quality design standards.  We await the detail on how the Bill will support local authorities to bring empty premises back into use and support the high street – currently local authorities have broad powers to support regeneration and so it’s difficult to see what more will be added which would have a meaningful impact.

It is positive that the Energy Security Bill proposes to appoint Ofgem as the new regulator for heat networks. I represent residents in new build homes who have no control over their energy prices and no powers to demand transparency over costs or choice of provider.  The appointment should go further and provide clear local involvement for consumers so that they have a say in their energy provider. There is a huge gap in making plans to insulate and retrofit existing homes so that they are more energy efficient.  Only a street by street, block by block programme, with sustained investment from national Government will secure the reduction in energy use that is needed to get to Net Zero.

It’s clear what’s missing from this legislative programme.  The Government has failed to address the issue of short term lets, which is eroding the availability of affordable homes across the country, particularly in London and areas with a growing tourist economy.  The Government’s failure to really grasp this issue and tackle the impact housing supply and communities let’s down both homeless families and those hoping to join the housing ladder. 

It is unsustainable for short term lets platforms to continue operating in central London without further regulation.  There is a gap where there should be a long term commitment to investment in genuinely affordable council and social housing.  This should be delivered through Government co-ordination of major new housing schemes alongside a sustained funding stream.

Going forward, Labour Housing Group will work with the Labour front bench and Labour MPs to make the case for the strongest possible action within these Bills to address the housing crisis.

<strong>Rachel Blake</strong>
Rachel Blake

Rachel is a Labour and Co-operative Party Councillor in Bow East and is Vice-Chair of the Labour Housing Group.

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Ending rough sleeping needs more than a sticking plaster

In December, I gave evidence to the MHCLG select committee about the impact of Covid-19 on rough sleeping.  My message to them was we desperately need investment in front line housing advice and long-term funding for genuinely affordable housing to really tackle the complex causes of rough sleeping. The pandemic has shown is what is politically possible, but short-term sticking plasters really need to become longer term solutions – and now is the time to make that case to the Government.

At the start of the lockdown councils were told by the government to do ‘whatever it takes’ to support our communities. One of the actions we took was to quickly house rough sleepers. Prior to the pandemic hitting rough sleeping had been steadily increasing after a decade of austerity, having been all but eliminated under the last Labour government.

The ‘Everyone In’ initiative made local authorities responsible for housing rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping. This was regardless of priority need, local connection or recourse to public funds. 

We stepped up to the challenge in Tower Hamlets, the borough I represent. Around 260 individuals either rough sleeping on the streets, or at imminent risk of rough sleeping, were given emergency accommodation. 49 of this group had No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). We placed entrenched rough sleepers into newly procured commercial hotels and emergency B&B accommodation. Statistics are one thing but each number represents a life transformed and having a roof over your head unlocks access to so many other services and life chances.

Now we face a situation of uncertainty about future funding to support this cohort of people. While the Government has called for councils to come up with a plan on how to move rough sleepers on to the next stage of accommodation, we have again stepped up, but we need funding to back us all the way.

The Next Steps Accommodation Programme, a £400m national fund, offers some help but the costs we face are substantial. Housing benefit claims won’t cover the cost of the support for a group with complex needs.  Ongoing announcements about additional funding streams create pressure on already under resourced teams to write ‘bids’ and applications for resources for projects that are so clearly needed. This relationship between local and national Government is breaking and needs urgently fixing.

Now we are in a further lockdown, with high levels of Covid cases and temperatures plummeting, we need the Government to make suitable provision. On a practical level normal provision such as hubs will not work as self-contained units are still required. If the Government does not get this right it will lead to an increase in infections. A decade of austerity has shown that if you simply turn off the funding taps in one area it leads to further pressures on other public services with longer term impacts on other services like the NHS.

It’s taken a time of crisis for the Government to step in and give councils the funding they need to tackle rough sleeping and they desperately need to address the long-term undersupply of genuinely affordable housing. If something good can come out of the pandemic, it’s eradicating rough sleeping. The Government has a real chance to not undo the progress we have made.

<strong><span class="uppercase"><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Rachel Blake</span></span></strong>
Rachel Blake

Rachel is the Deputy Mayor for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. She was elected to represent the Labour Party for Bow East Ward in May 2014 and appointed to Cabinet in July 2015.

Rachel has held Cabinet Member roles for Regeneration, Planning, and Air Quality. Rachel is now the Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Well-being.

She has previously been called in as an expert witness to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on its inquiry into the long-term delivery of social and affordable rented housing.

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Westferry highlights everything wrong with planning

I’ll always remember the moment on 14 January 2020, I heard that Robert Jenrick had approved Richard Desmond’s application for Westferry Printworks: 1,524 new homes with only 21% affordable housing.  The news came through on my way into work, preparing for the Full Council meeting that very night, that would adopt our new Local Plan ‘Managing Growth and Sharing the Benefits’ and a new Community Infrastructure Levy schedule. As soon as the decision was announced, the importance of the timing could not have been clearer. 

The publication of the decision that day, saved the developer £30-50 million and took that funding away from the residents of Tower Hamlets who, through the democratically led Local Plan process, had established infrastructure needs for the area: primary schools, health centres, community centres and green space and more.

At the heart of this very long and complicated story are 2 basic questions which still need answers.

First why did the Secretary of State approve the application against his own inspector’s and officials in his own department’s advice?

Secondly why did he approve the application the day before the development would have been eligible for £30-50 million infrastructure payment?

The decision had been a long time coming.  After Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, approved the first application in 2016, the developer chose to almost double the size of the scheme in a further application.  Before the local Strategic Development Committee had a chance to make a decision, the applicant ‘appealed against non-determination’ arguably a tactic to avoid local decision making. 

During a parliamentary debate on the matter, Tory MPs fell over themselves to suggest that the fault in the process lay with Tower Hamlets Council – how painfully ironic that the delay was in part due to negotiations over the level of affordable housing.

In Tower Hamlets, we had been working on our new Local Plan for over 3 years (much of that time was spent waiting for the Government’s Planning Inspector to schedule our inspection – a required part of the process).  At its heart the Planning System – established in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 – was designed to democratise the use of land and give people a say in the development which comes forward. 

Through months of consultation, we listened and heard our community want to see more genuinely affordable homes and confidence that new development brings with it the schools, GP surgeries, public transport and shared space needed to support a thriving community. 

The most concerning responses to the consultation were those which said residents did not feel connected to new development and that residents could never afford live in new homes.  And so, Tower Hamlets Council established a vision: ‘Managing Growth and Sharing the Benefits’- introducing new policy on genuinely affordable rents, access to open space, health impact assessments and more.

The same night that we approved our Local Plan, Tower Hamlets Full Council set a new Community Infrastructure Levy.  This was a progressive policy meaning developers had to pay their fair share to invest in infrastructure. The new levy established the Westferry Printwork sites as eligible for a Community Infrastructure Levy payment. 

For years, the owners of Westferry Printworks had benefitted from not having to pay this Levy on the grounds that the complexities of the site would make development ‘unviable’ if the payment was required. Thanks to the careful evidence gathering and analysis from officers, Tower Hamlets Council successfully argued that this was not the case and so the site became ‘liable’.

Amongst the deeply depressing and some frankly embarrassing contributions from Tory MPs in the debate last month, it was the hollow arguments on housing supply that really grated.  The suggestion that in some way, Jenrick was doing us a favour by allowing such inappropriate development to take place would be laughable if the consequences of his actions were not so serious. 

Tower Hamlets has a track record of approving high levels of housing and office development, is consistently home to the highest levels of affordable housing development by housing associations and has one of London’s most ambitious Council home building programmes. 

The Secretary of State and his cheerleaders really were grasping at straws to suggest that this development was making a contribution to housing in Tower Hamlets – Desmond already had a planning consent that he refused to build out and the vast majority of homes provided in this development would have been way out of reach for most of the UK, let alone residents of Tower Hamlets.

As a proud representative of Tower Hamlets, it hurt to hear our community attacked and undermined in the House of Commons by Conservative MPs who were reading lines from a script. After several weekends of revelations in the papers, Jenrick had tried to dodge scrutiny and when he finally had to face the music it was lazy to trot out lines about a ‘rotten borough’ which are out of date or blame the Mayor of London.

This was pure deflection and tribal politics. 

I invite everyone of them who tribally stayed ‘on message’ in the chamber to come and sit with me or any of my Councillor colleagues in our surgeries where we listen to and work with our constituents who desperately need a new home and action on health inequalities. 

The suggestion that Jenrick made this decision in the interest of overcrowded and homeless families is grossly insulting, at best.  I hope that they will think on their positions and consider whether they are prepared to stand by their statements in the weeks and months to come which I expect – through the Select Committee and the next decision taken by a different Minister – will reveal further irregularities  

This whole saga reminds us just how much needs to change about housing and planning in the UK.  For communities to accept and welcome new development, they have to have confidence in the planning system.  The ‘viability assessment’ process should be taken out of the regulations.

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has made great progress in London with the ‘35% threshold’ process but many other councils still report viability assessments and the regulations which allow developers to vary their affordable housing contributions as a huge barrier to securing sustainable development.  Local Authorities still need more effective powers to intervene when sites are not being developed. 

The Secretary of State’s decision on Westferry Printworks casts a long shadow over the Government’s new proposals for ‘cutting red tape’ and encouraging ‘permitted development rights’ which give communities very little say over levels of affordable housing their high streets and neighbourhoods

The Westferry decision highlighted everything that is wrong with planning. But let’s try to make it a moment to galvanise us all to work towards delivering the homes, offices, community buildings and public open spaces that residents need.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Rachel Blake</span></strong>
Rachel Blake

Rachel is the Deputy Mayor for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. She was elected to represent the Labour Party for Bow East Ward in May 2014 and appointed to Cabinet in July 2015.

Rachel has held Cabinet Member roles for Regeneration, Planning, and Air Quality. Rachel is now the Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Well-being.

She has previously been called in as an expert witness to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on its inquiry into the long-term delivery of social and affordable rented housing.

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Post-Covid crisis how should the Private Rented Sector change?

The Covid crisis exposes weaknesses at the heart of our housing system. The emergency ‘all in’ policy for rough sleepers, temporary eviction ban, lifting of Local Housing Allowance rates are all life-saving measures.  But we should all be ashamed that our housing system is so broken that such interventions were needed.  

Access to a safe, secure and affordable home is no longer available to hundreds of thousands of children and their families.  Our whole housing system has to change and alongside national investment in genuinely affordable homes, major reforms to the private rented sector must be a core part of that change. 

Labour Housing Group Patron Karen Buck MP, has done outstanding work on improving rights for renters, including bringing forward the Homes for Human Habitation Act in 2019.  Labour needs to campaign for a private rented sector where renters pay a fair rent, are treated decently by their landlord, get their repairs done on time and can put down roots in a community. 

There is hope that this is a moment to reflect on the powerful impact that our housing situation has on our health and inequalities in our housing system but this Tory Government is not bringing forward the legislation needed. For a decent and fair recovery, where no-one is left behind, we need urgent measures to keep renters safe and a programme of long-term reforms.

Renters need secure homes – this is better for them and for economic recovery.  It is a huge relief for renters that the eviction ban has been extended to the end of August but there is so much more to do.  Following years of collective action, the Government has scheduled the Renters Reform Bill, but we must continue to press them and our representatives in Parliament to make sure that it is debated and enacted as soon as possible.  The sooner that Section 21 ends, the sooner that tenants can feel secure in putting down roots in their community.

Private renters have very few rights to information about their landlord or new home.  It is not right that renters cannot check whether landlords have met certain standards.  Mayor Sadiq Khan’s blue print for renters in London sets out how we can improve access to information for renters and we should campaign for devolution to local and regional authorities to establish accountability locally for landlords.  For Labour activists, preparing for local elections in May 2021 will be a key moment to speak to private renters, listen to their experiences and work on local policies to support private renters.

As a local Councillor, I know just how hard it is to use the legislation available so that repairs are done on time, homes are properly maintained and renters are treated decently.  The powers to take action on these issues rest mostly with local authorities who have endured a decade now of funding cuts.  For a fully functioning private rented sector, which works for renters, landlords and the economy, we need a transparent and standardised funding settlement for local authority enforcement services.

The connection between housing and health was cemented in public policy nearly 150 years ago in 1885 in the Royal Commission on the Housing of Working Classes.  This relationship was maintained when Nye Bevan became the Minister for Health and Housing in 1945.  The Covid crisis reminds us just how linked our health is to our housing. We cannot afford to wait another 75 years before this connection is renewed in policy. 

Many renters report not just a detrimental impact of insecure housing on their physical health but also a strain on their mental health.  Not only are some of our most vulnerable households living in insecure homes but many of the key-workers who care for us, feed us and nurse us are spending their already low wages on private rented homes with very few rights.  We urgently need transformation of the private rented sector, for a recovery that leaves no-one behind.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Rachel Blake</span></strong>
Rachel Blake

Rachel is the Deputy Mayor for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. She was elected to represent the Labour Party for Bow East Ward in May 2014 and appointed to Cabinet in July 2015.

Rachel has held Cabinet Member roles for Regeneration, Planning, and Air Quality. Rachel is now the Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Well-being.

She has previously been called in as an expert witness to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on its inquiry into the long-term delivery of social and affordable rented housing.