The Tories have been a disaster for housing policy, pouring billions into trying – and failing – to prop up home ownership while neglecting the rented sector. Here’s why you should vote to keep them out of power on Thursday.
- They haven’t built enough homes
Disregarding the two years of the global crash, Labour presided over 186,000 net housing completions per year from 2001/02 while the Tories (from 2010/11) could only manage an average of 148,000. Obviously, a large part of the reason is their failure to stimulate the economy. They may bend over backwards to create a favourable climate for their friends the housing developers, but without a prosperous economy they simply won’t build the homes needed.
- They are obsessed with home ownership
The policy imbalance is nowhere clearer than in the Tories’ spending plans: over £50 billion being pumped into stimulating the housing market, almost all of it (84%) going into the private market. This is a legacy from George Osborne as chancellor which Theresa May’s government has barely changed. The outcome seems to be that the market becomes ever more dependent on government subsidies, even while the proportion of people who are home owners – especially in younger age groups – continues to fall.
- Renters are being neglected
In whichever sector you’re a tenant, your interests are not shared by those in government. Modest tax changes have (eventually) restrained the buy to let market and seem to have started to hold back the relentless rise in rents, but the rip-offs of large deposits and agents’ fees continue. The Tory government has only tinkered at the edges – trying to curb ‘rogue landlords’ with measures that will never be effective because local authorities don’t have the resources. Meanwhile, the bulk of renters live in a policy-free, virtually uncontrolled, market. Labour promises to change this via a ‘consumer rights revolution’ for private tenants.
The Tories also brought in higher ‘affordable’ rents and have presided over the decline in the social rented sector since 2011. Nearly 200,000 ‘social’ homes are now let at up to 80% of market rents. As we have seen during the election campaign, the Tories don’t even understand their own policies, with Theresa May promising a ‘new generation of homes for social rent’ and the Tory minister having to explain that she really meant homes let at higher, ‘affordable’ rents.
- ‘Municipal’ house building won’t recover from the Tories ditching the self-financing settlement
For all that Theresa May claims to want more ‘municipal’ housing, a few deals to create homes that will only be rented out for 10-15 years before being sold will hardly be attractive to councils, and especially not to applicants on their waiting lists. The truth is that the Tories, who (to be fair) implemented the self-financing settlement for council housing developed by Labour’s John Healey, went on to destroy it by rent cuts, the ‘reinvigorated’ right to buy, and much else. Labour, in contrast, have promised to build up to an annual programme of 100,000 genuinely affordable homes.
- Welfare cuts march relentlessly on
As Mrs May showed when confronted by people who’d suffered cuts in their welfare benefits, she’s totally unable to engage sympathetically with people in desperate need. That’s why, despite the change in welfare secretary, the cuts set in motion by Iain Duncan Smith continue, disregarding all the evidence of their devastating effects. In housing, this will manifest itself in more tenants being unable to pay their rents, further rises in homelessness, continued uncertainty over future provision of supported housing and a crisis in provision for under-35s who are (effectively) being denied housing benefit at levels sufficient to pay their rents.
- Austerity continues, local government pays the price
Mrs May wants to continue to shrink the state until it accounts for only 35% of GDP. As ever, it’s local government services that will be hit hardest. Related to housing, this has already affected planning and housing strategy services, homelessness and housing advice, housing support and help for the voluntary sector, all services that depend on government revenue grant which is to be rapidly phased out. Who will ‘prevent’ homelessness under the new legislation due to take effect in 2019, if there is no money to pay for staff or offices?
- Communities will continue to suffer
If local government can barely maintain services, the effects are even worse in the neighbourhoods where poorer people live, as cuts in youth services, community centres, Sure Start and just about every other local service are made not only by councils but by cash-starved local charities. This makes a nonsense of Mrs May’s claim after the terror attacks that she wanted to end segregation. The modest funding supplied by the last Labour government to promote integration in mixed-race areas has disappeared, English-language teaching has been cut, the government’s ‘hostile environment’ for migrants pits newcomers against long-standing residents, and its wider policies ensure that inequality will get even worse.
- Theresa May isn’t interested in tackling climate change
As we saw in her muted response to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, May isn’t motivated to address climate change. This is important for housing because – amazing as it may seem – to meet our legally binding carbon targets we need to comprehensively retrofit our housing stock at the rate of one house per minute. These obligations will still be there when we leave the EU, unless a right-wing government ditches them. And of course the climate will continue to change too, if no concerted action is taken. Housing is the place to start because energy efficiency saves on heating bills, too.
- Brexit is going to hit housing hard
Apart from its general economic effects, if there is a tough Brexit deal with much reduced European migration, key sectors to be hit will include construction and social care, which both depend heavily on EU workers (especially in London). Contrary to the superficial idea that reduced migration will help us solve our housing problems, it could actually make them far worse.
- Labour has a much better plan
As Steve pointed out earlier this week, Labour’s detailed housing policy manifesto may not be perfect but it is a hell of a lot better than anything on offer from the Tories. Just compare it with the January white paper – which amounted to 100 pages of not very much and with no extra money to pay for it anyway. Labour has a much better plan: let’s get them into office with a chance to implement it and start the transformation of England’s housing that is so urgently needed.