Blog Post

Housing is a human right: how Labour can make it a reality

For anyone looking at whether housing should be considered to be a human right, a blinding light shines on the obviousness of the question. If housing is not a fundamental right, then what is the point of human rights campaigns?

A new publication jointly produced by Labour Housing Group and the Labour Campaign for Human Rights brings together a number of voices showing how this fundamental change could transform people’s lives. At a time of severe housing pressure in this country, fully implementing the UN’s right to adequate housing makes absolute sense.

The publication follows the adoption of the call for housing as a human right into UK laws by the Labour Party at its Annual Conference 2021.

A number of major Labour figures have called on the right to housing to be recognised and treated as a human right. In his leadership campaign, Keir Starmer said “We have to start treating housing as a fundamental human right”. Others including Andy Burnham have stated their support to the principle, and at Labour’s Annual Conference in 2021, the then Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Lucy Powell, also spoke powerfully about housing as a human right being “at the heart of our New Settlement”.

What may now be different is that the Labour Party could be poised to go beyond just using the rhetoric of human rights, and instead use it as basis to orient our future housing policies and ensure that everyone, everywhere, can access a safe, decent and affordable home.

But what does this really mean, and why is it so exciting?

First, taking a human rights approach to housing starts by recognising that homelessness, unaffordable rents and unsafe housing are not just social ills, but serious human rights violations impacting millions of people. The flip side of this is to recognise that housing policy is not just about choices a government may or may not make, but about obligations they must fulfil. Legitimate political debate then begins to focus on how to end homelessness, not whether to do so.

Second, a human right to housing provides a framework in which progressive policy can de designed. According to international treaties ratified by the UK – and hopefully in the future incorporated into domestic law – governments must outline how they are acting to ensure housing is available, affordable, safe, decent and provides security of tenure. They must ensure this for everyone, and must take proactive measures to ensure equal provision for groups who may otherwise face discrimination or experience inequalities, whether they be women, minorities or people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, or face extra difficulties because of disabilities. Ambitious concrete policies will be needed to achieve all of these things, from mass council house building and abolition of Section 21 evictions, to ending the cladding scandal, getting rid of discriminatory “right to rent” checks, and providing adequate traveller sites.

Third, a human right to housing should ensure that change is not just driven from the top, but also by empowering residents, tenants and leaseholders to drive change from below. In part this means providing ways in which people can be meaningfully involved in developing policies and also have their complaints heard. One of the many human rights violated in the run up to the Grenfell fire was residents’ right to be heard, with safety complaints dismissed with fatal results. It also means identifying ways in which people can hold authorities accountable for their actions, and seek remedy when rights have been violated. In many cases this may mean effective complaints mechanisms, backed by clear information and support to individuals, in others it may mean recourse to courts with the support of adequate legal aid.

 “Housing is a human right: how Labour can make it a reality” sets out the agenda for tackling the implementation of the right into English law, recognising that there is already a move to do so in both Wales and Scotland, and following the examples from elsewhere in the world. Experts including academics, a former UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, and specialist housing lawyers focus on what the right would mean, how it has been adopted elsewhere in the world, and how it could be enforced.

Labour politicians from around the country have looked at how to guarantee the right to an affordable rent, already being worked on in London and Scotland, to good conditions for all tenants, and to access to a home.

Examples from elsewhere in the world show how progress has been made towards implementing the intention set out in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in Article 11 of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) for housing to be included as a right for all nations. As Leilani Farha, former special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing has illustrated, enshrining the right in the laws of any country is not simple or speedy. Canada’s National Housing Strategy (2017) committed the state to progressively implementing the right of every Canadian to access adequate housing. A feasibility study recently published in Wales concludes that the UN expects governments to make progress toward the “fullest possible realisation of the right through the application of resources as they become available”.

So the question about whether we can afford to give our citizens this right – a question that comes up pretty soon in any conversation about this issue – can be answered: once we start to make financial decisions based on this right, then we will find that we can not only afford to do it, but it also makes economic sense to do it. And as the Canada Government has found, implementing this right influences a whole raft of other decisions, financial and otherwise.

The UN’s declaration sets out the principle that this should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity, one that the war in Ukraine has highlighted only too painfully in recent weeks.

By recognising that housing is a human right, and committing to incorporate the right to adequate housing into UK law, the Labour Party has taken an important step in framing a progressive and transformative housing policy. There is much more work to do, but together we can do it. It is to be hoped that many others will join with Labour Housing Group and the Labour Campaign for Human Rights to work on how this right can be achieved here in our country.

This article was co-authored by the Labour Campaign for Human Rights and the Labour Housing Group.

<strong>Sheila Spencer</strong>
Sheila Spencer

Sheila is the Secretary for the Labour Housing Group and was one of several authors involved with the contribution.

Blog Post

Preventing veteran homelessness: how your local authority’s Armed Forces Champion can help

We’ve learnt, over the last 20 or so years, how to help prepare people leaving care, hospital or prison so as to avert the chance of homelessness. Not that it always works: since 2010, we’ve gone backwards in regards to well-planned prison releases because of the privatisation of probation and some prisons, and cuts in advice and support services; and too many young people move into privately-run halfway schemes which don’t properly prepare them for full independence.

But we know what is needed. Lots of work has gone into tenancy training programmes and materials, improving liaison between prisons and homelessness services; and money is finally going back into services which identify people at risk of sleeping rough when released from prison.

In the arena of people leaving the Armed Forces, however, it seems there is more to be done. Labour Housing Group was very pleased to speak at a very informative fringe meeting at Labour’s Annual Conference this year, organised by SME4Labour for the trade union Community, which includes private prison staff and steelworkers amongst its members.

The meeting, held as part of Community’s veteran homelessness campaign, brought together speakers with personal knowledge of the challenges facing people exiting the forces, experience of developing solutions to meet particular housing and support needs, and a politician (John Healey, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence) with a background in finding the right policy solutions on the ground and in Parliament in health, housing, and defence roles.

We learnt that preparation for leaving a post in the forces does not go far beyond looking at applying for jobs. As a result, it’s not unusual for someone without a home to go to to say “Oh it’s okay, I’ll get a council house” without any idea if how difficult that can be in most parts of the country.

Three factors in particular can affect whether the person has a smooth path into accommodation, in addition to the usual ones (having savings, sorting out a well-paid job before leaving, and having family with their own resources to support their child/spouse/sibling).

The first is the loss of self-identity, losing your community back-up, and a lack of understanding of the civilian lifestyle,that hits many ex-service personnel. This can have a drastic impact on confidence and general mental health.

People who have been used to making decisions within a totally different system from the military one they are used to may benefit from support. There is now a lot more support available, in supported accommodation or through other services, but there is not enough to meet everyone’s needs.

The second is that all too many people leave active service in places like Afghanistan and Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or traumatic brain injury (often undiagnosed) as a result of exposure to blasts, both of which can result in depression, impulsive behaviour and overuse of alcohol and/or drugs.

The consequent problems of relationship breakdown, debt, offending and homelessness are familiar stories for families and those working with people in these situations.

The third factor is that people who exit following a misdemeanour are likely to have less time to prepare as well as less money, and perhaps even a loss of their pension.

There have been some recent improvements in policy responses. The Armed Forces Covenant has led to homeless ex-service applicants being able to be helped without consideration of any local connection, and the Homelessness Reduction Act should mean everyone getting a full assessment of their needs for Housing and for support.

Councils are asked to appoint a councillor as an Armed Forces Champion, and some have gone further by appointing an officer to strengthen support for the armed forces community. However, not all local authorities are responding as they should.

So here’s some things to check:

  • Does your council have an Armed Forces Champion? If not, and you are a councillor, could you offer to take on that role?
  • Has your council adopted the Armed Forced Covenant?
  • Does your housing allocations policy and practice ensure that ex-service applicants can apply for housing in your area even if they do not have a formal local connection?
  • Had your housing options team built good links with ex-service organisations, and prisons too, so that they can help people leaving the services or ex-service personnel leaving prions to avoid being homeless?
  • Does your authority focus on how to advise and signpost both serving and ex-serving personnel to housing, benefit, employment and health services?

Other things need to change to make the system work for people leaving the forces: reversing the cuts in drug and alcohol services; better collaboration between prisons and housing services – and far more housing advice staff in prisons; improving the way that mental health and drug and alcohol treatments work together; and, of course, building more public housing so that there are genuinely affordable, safe, and secure options for people in this situation.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Sheila Spencer</span></strong>
Sheila Spencer

Sheila has been Secretary of the Labour Housing Group (LHG) since 2018, having re-joined LHG Executive after a gap of many years.

Blog Post

Housing as a universal human right

When Leilani Farha, the former UN Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, spoke at the Labour Housing Group (LHG) Connected 2020 Fringe meeting, she argued that housing should be a universal human right. Is this achievable and if so how do we organise to achieve it? And will it bring an end to homelessness?

Her organisation, The Shift, set up in 2016, and the Municipalist Declaration of Local Governments for the Right to Housing and the Right to the City which was signed by 11 city managers across the world in 2018, plan to reclaim and realise the fundamental human right to housing:

THE SHIFT recognizes housing as a human right, not a commodity or an extractive industry. The Shift restores the understanding of housing as home, challenging the ways financial actors undermine the right to housing. Using a human rights framework, The Shift provokes action to end homelessness, unaffordability, and evictions globally.

In the film Leilani exposes the role that private equity firms play within the private rental market in city after city, and country after country, pushing up rents so that ordinary people are priced out of their own communities, alongside the mass replacement of homes where people had lived with buildings bought as an investment opportunity and now kept empty.

We are getting used to seeing the centres of our British cities hollowed out by investors buying up properties which they don’t intend to live in, but as the film illustrates, the scale of it is staggering. Two London examples are the multi-million pound unoccupied houses left empty in Belgravia, resulting in almost entirely traffic-free streets; and the replacement of council flats in one estate in Southwark – which previously had over 3000 residents – by homes that are left empty because they are simply seen as assets, mainly with foreign owners. The presenters talked about these as “dead zones”.

Other cities around the world are experiencing this form of social cleansing. In Toronto, tenants took part in a rent strike because so few repairs were being done by the new owners of their blocks, at the same time as rents were increasing by vastly more than average family incomes[1]. Tenants called the rent increases “eviction by any other name” and experienced harassment and threats for being involved in the protest.

In Kreuzberg in Germany, rent increases were seen to be forcing out both tenants and small businesses, to be replaced by corporate businesses and multi-national food companies. Footage shot in Milan, New York, Valparaiso (Chile), and Barcelona showed the threats (and violence) to families resisting being forced to leave the areas and communities they lived in.  The trend is even affecting Sweden, with its strong social democratic tradition.

We learnt tenants in many cities around the world now have the same property owner as their landlord, a private equity company called Blackstone which is now the largest property owner in the world. Their typical way of working appears to be the same across many countries: buy up blocks of flats, use plans to renovate them to force rent rises by far greater amounts than the cost of the renovations, and replace as speedily as possible the tenants who cannot afford the new rents. Blackstone also makes sure that they are pretty inaccessible to tenants, an office open just a few hours a week, as in a Swedish example.

The film describes companies buying up huge swathes of homes in inner cities as “vultures”, and “monsters than no-one can see”. What makes this all the more distasteful is the fact that private equity firms use investment from our pension funds. So our own pensions are involved here, without our knowledge or permission. Also, a chilling example was given from Italy of how Mafia money is laundered through housing investment.

Fortunately, some people can see what is happening, and are trying to stop dirty money from destroying our cities and shoving people out of the way.

41 cities included London, Manchester and Birmingham, inspired by Leilani’s campaigning work, have set up the Cities for Adequate Housing Group and signed the Municipalist Declaration of Local Governments for the Right to Housing and the Right to the City. Together and individually, they are working to combat the destruction of their cities. Several mayors talked about how they are buying back empty properties, surely what needs to be done in London, whilst others are bringing in laws aimed at stopping companies from buying up large tracts of land or property. Control of the growth of Airbnb is also part of the story, given that this sector also serves to drive ordinary people out of their cities.

Working to create an entitlement to housing as a human right is clearly the only way forward. Whilst we are waiting for a Labour government, we must urge as many cities as possible to join in. As the Cities for Adequate Housing Group says: “local governments cannot stay on the side-lines and need to take a central role.” In order to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for housing[2], we all need to sign up to a worldwide commitment for the right to housing.

If we want the next generation to be able to live in the cities we currently occupy and love, something has to change. And we need urgently to explain to them what is happening so that they can help us make those changes.

Labour Housing Group Executive has agreed that we will work, with the Front Bench team, towards establishing the Right to Housing as a human right in the UK. This will be a fitting campaign for 2021, to celebrate our 40th year of existence.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Sheila Spencer</span></strong>
Sheila Spencer

Sheila has been Secretary of the Labour Housing Group (LHG) since 2018, having re-joined LHG Executive after a gap of many years.

She believes that housing is a critical issue across the country and that Labour has great housing policies – but many people, including many members, do not yet know how Labour intends to solve the current housing crisis when next in power.

Sheila wants to see Labour in the forefront of people’s minds when they consider what needs to change. She has worked all her life in housing – in the areas of homelessness, supported housing and housing need. Sheila was a city councillor in Newcastle and is now retired.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Andy Bates</span></strong>
Andy Bates

Andy is a long-standing member of the Labour Party.  He is a member of the  Old Southwark and Bermondsey CLP.

Andy is on the executive of the London Labour Housing Group. For LHG Executive Committee, he is promoting and co-ordinating LHG members going out to speak to CLPs and branches about housing issues.

[1] Over 30 years, rents in Toronto have gone up by 425% compared to 133% for average incomes.

[2] SDG11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” by 2030

Blog Post

Does the housing sector hold the key to an improved electoral register?

As we all know, there are gaping holes in electoral registers in the UK, but it appears that it is not just in the United States that some right wing politicians seem to be happy about people being excluded from voting. A debate in the House of Commons in early November, during the discussion of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill 2019-21, has highlighted this once again.

Following amendments made in the House of Lords, a majority of MPs sadly voted to reject the proposal to add 16-year-olds to the register, or to provide them with information on how to apply to join the register when they receive their National Insurance number.

Last November, just before the deadline to register for the 2019 General Election, the Electoral Commission revealed that between 8.3 million and 9.4 million eligible voters were not on the register from their current address; this is about 17%  – just under 1 in 5 – of the adult population.

We should be alarmed enough at that fact on its own, but other data published for 2018 shows that 1 in 4 Black and Asian people were not registered to vote, and nor were around 1 in 3 amongst 18-24 year olds. Furthermore, whilst almost 1 in 5 of social tenants were not registered, around 1 in 3 of private tenants were not on the list to vote. These are indeed shocking figures, and we really do need to take action to rectify this.

In part, this is due to the botched introduction of individual electoral registration made by the Coalition Government in 2014: against the advice of the Electoral Commission, instead of parents registering their adult children or institutional landlords like universities registering everyone in halls of residence, each person now has to register themselves, and must do so each time they move.

The change was rushed in without either electors or universities being given time to understand what the change meant. As a result, at least 600,000 voters vanished from the electoral roll, and a significant proportion of these have not yet been recovered.

While many universities have made efforts to encourage students to register, including information about registration in packs for first year students in halls or elsewhere, there are huge gaps in registrations for private tenants – both students and others – and particularly those in multi-occupied buildings where it can be hard for registration agents employed by local authorities to gain access.

Even without new legislation, it is arguable that local authorities could do more to encourage registration, for example using the contact they have with council tax payers, benefit claimants, parking permit users, blue badge holders, care users, and indeed, parents of school children.

But it is also possible for the housing sector to more do to help. Firstly, all councils, ALMOs and Housing Associations could make registering to vote easy for their tenants, getting people to sign an electoral registration form when they sign up for a new tenancy, and reminding them to re-register every time they move. Many housing organisations carry out programmed tenancy checks, often using electoral registers as part of the exercise, so they could easily contact and provide a prompt to all those not registered. At the very least, registering to vote should form part of every conversation with a new or relocating tenant, and at least once a year with all other tenants.

Secondly, information could be made available to housing staff, and to community organisations, particularly those working with tenants whose first language may not be English. They could explain who is allowed to register to vote and for which elections (it’s not entirely straightforward, as all Labour Party canvassers will know!), as well as the need for each individual to register and how to do it.

Thirdly, and very importantly, all support and care providers should ensure that their staff know how to help people register and how to vote. This should be part of the contract for every employee working with vulnerable residents, including helping them to access information about the candidates and the political parties they represent, and helping them to access the voting system, all of which can be done without displaying any political bias themselves. Coming across a resident who had wanted to vote but could not get to the polling station, fill in a ballot paper, or register to vote without help is amongst my least favourite experiences on Polling Day.

Finally, what can we do about private tenants, some of whom move every year as a result of Thatcher’s dismantling in 1988 of security of tenure in the private rented sector? It’s of course really a matter for Parliament to change the way that this is done: in Australia, individual voter registration has been in place for years, with voters staying on the register even if they move, with cross-referencing between multiple databases making it far less likely that people will be lost. In this country, the work has to be done by each council on a separate basis, with thousands of people coming off the register in each district every year, meaning a huge waste of resources.

Until we get a change to address this (and, my preferred option, to introduce compulsory registration) at national level, we have to rely on action at a local level. Private sector housing teams could ensure voter registration is mentioned at all meetings with landlords, even making it a requirement to issue an electoral registration form as part of landlord licensing and accreditation schemes.

The easiest solution to the unacceptable rate of electoral registration in the UK would be to automatically register people when they got their NI number, and require people to register each time they moved. But until we have a government that wants to make it as easy as possible for people to register, housing organisations which are in touch with a significant number of electors one way or another could take some responsibility for helping them to make their voices heard.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Sheila Spencer</span></strong>
Sheila Spencer

Sheila has been Secretary of the Labour Housing Group (LHG) since 2018, having re-joined LHG Executive after a gap of many years.

She believes that housing is a critical issue across the country and that Labour has great housing policies – but many people, including many members, do not yet know how Labour intends to solve the current housing crisis when next in power.

Sheila wants to see Labour in the forefront of people’s minds when they consider what needs to change. She has worked all her life in housing – in the areas of homelessness, supported housing and housing need. Sheila was a city councillor in Newcastle and is now retired.

Blog Post

Socialist housing policies for a recovering Britain

Labour Housing Group is determined to lead the renewed debate about housing policies that can take us towards recovery. Our online housing conference this Saturday October 3rd (10am-1pm) aims to air the many issues that have come to the fore in the last 8 months as never before, and to make sure that housing comes to and stays at the top of the political agenda when we emerge from the pandemic. As our piece in Labour List yesterday highlights, now is the time to build socialist housing policies for a recovering Britain.

Making a reality of a decent home for all

We were all been concerned about people sleeping on the streets in lockdown, and pleased to see some recognition coming from the Government that this could not continue. Yet despite the short term arrangements to help street homeless people showing what can be done when there is a strategy backed by finance and determination, as in the Everyone In policy, we are now worrying again about homelessness: now that the eviction moratorium has ended, the prediction of large numbers of evictions (legal and illegal too) has to be addressed. The fundamental debate about tenants’ rights must be a key part of our plan for recovery and, in time, for a socialist Britain. Our speakers will look at the need for enforcement as well as how to make private rented homes fit to live in and managed well.

We also need to think longer term about the housing policies that are essential to make an economic and social recovery possible.  Our session on design, quality and sustainability, and our keynote speech from the Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, will focus our minds on how to develop green homes, as economically as possible. We will also look at housing policies to suit all parts of the country.

Current Tory disasters, in progress or planned, provide easy clues about how we could do better.  The disaster of Grenfell three years ago has led to a new crisis for social landlords needing to replace dangerous cladding, and a new generation of leaseholders facing penury. We should work closely with newly emerging leaseholder groups to develop new policies based on ending this feudal system. Speakers will show how the Planning White Paper, another catastrophe in the making, would reduce public involvement in planning to very low levels whilst running roughshod through systems for assessing where new housing is needed. A Labour alternative would be attractive to people all round the country.

Racial disparities and inequalities in housing provision have impacted on BAME communities, but this is not focused often enough on within the movement. Councillors and activists from around the country will draw out what needs to change here.

Labour councils are working hard to build council homes in many areas. Sharing ideas about how this can be done in today’s climate, and working towards our aim of meeting housing needs through public provision once more, is a key part of any socialist housing conversation.

Clearly, how we fund the building, refurbishment, and greening of new – private and council homes – is an essential element of Labour policy. Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor will be interviewed by Steve Hilditch, one of the founders of Labour Housing Group, who will be drawing out Anneliese’s thoughts on how a future Labour government could improve the operation of the housing market, how we should prioritise public investment in new and greener homes, and whether we can switch spending from ‘benefits to bricks’.

Most of the morning will be spent in workshops, with councillors, front bench and back bench MPs, academics, campaigners, and lawyers leading the way.

The conference has been organised in partnership with Labour Campaign for Council Housing, the SHOUT campaign for social housing, and the National Leasehold Campaign, as well as our front bench housing team.

We hope to welcome you to it too.

You can see more about the conference here and register here.
This event has now taken place.
Catch up below:
<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>Sheila Spencer</strong></span>
Sheila Spencer

Sheila has been Secretary of the Labour Housing Group (LHG) since 2018, having re-joined LHG Executive after a gap of many years.

She believes that housing is a critical issue across the country and that Labour has great housing policies – but many people, including many members, do not yet know how Labour intends to solve the current housing crisis when next in power.

Sheila wants to see Labour in the forefront of people’s minds when they consider what needs to change. She has worked all her life in housing – in the areas of homelessness, supported housing and housing need. Sheila was a city councillor in Newcastle and is now retired.

Blog Post

A handy guide to Labour’s manifesto housing pledges

By Sheila Spencer, Secretary, Labour Housing Group

Take this with you on the doorstep! A handy guide to Labour’s manifesto housing pledges.  LHG Housing Policy Guide GE 2019LHG has produced a quick guide to the main manifesto promises for housing. Please share it round to all your Labour friends!

For a more easily printable version go to the doorstep guide on LHG website.

We couldn’t mention everything in this 1 page guide, but there’s something in our policies for everyone:

  • young people stuck in private rented homes, paying exorbitant rents, having to move every 6 months or year, and facing landlords who don’t maintain their properties
  • families moving from one private rented home to another, with no stability for their children and no hope of a secure, affordable, council or Housing Association home
  • leaseholders having to pay through the nose for ground rents
  • anyone facing homelessness
  • people in high rise tower blocks worried about fire safety in their homes
  • families who are anxious about where their children will be able to afford to live when they grow up
  • first-time buyers wanting low cost homes so they can stay near their work and families
  • those wanting to live in environmentally sustainable homes

We know that young people in particular are desperate for hope that the housing market can be made to work for them. We want to see the end of “young” people (under 35??) being forced to share flats and houses with people they don’t know, forced to move on a frequent basis, and facing huge battles to get decent living conditions. So when Labour gets into power, we’ll make all private tenancies indefinite ones as a matter of course (as they were before the Tories changed the rules in 1988). This won’t stop you agreeing a fixed term tenancy with your landlord – but you won’t any longer be forced into this.

No-fault evictions go out with this change too. And the 2019 Manifesto says that we’ll cap rent increases, bring in binding minimum standards, more money for enforcement, and funding for renters’ unions. The work of Acorn and Generation Rent can be replicated around the country, protecting tenants from the excesses of the worst landlords.

Other big stories are, of course, the pledge to build an average 100,000 council homes a year, the Green Deal which means retrofitting older homes can become a reality, and the pledge to reform leasehold.

My other favourites are getting rid of Bedroom Tax (alongside LHA caps, and reforming Universal Credit), ending the Right to Buy, and, of course, funding for fitting sprinklers and other fire safety measures in all high-rise council and housing association tower blocks. And if you’re on the doorstep and people ask how we can deliver all of this at once, tell them that the draft legislation to repeal the Bedroom Tax is already written so it will take only days to get this into force, once we are elected!

As the Labour Party says, Labour is on the side of the tenants. We need to broadcast this loud and clear for the next 2 weeks. Please help to get this message across!

Labour on the side of tenants

For a more easily printable version go to the doorstep guide on LHG website.

Blog Post

A look back at Labour’s Annual Conference 2019, from a housing perspective

Amid the gloom of Brexit, climate change, and reselection fever, Annual Conference this year was a rather more cheery experience for those who care about housing issues. For one thing, there were more fringe meetings about housing and homelessness (at least 20) than any other subject – even Brexit and the NHS. And the Priority Ballot for delegates to vote on which topics they want to see discussed at Conference saw housing get the highest vote in the Constituency ballot, and one of the highest in the Trade Union one. Finally, a large number of motions had been submitted about both housing and homelessness.

Healey at LHG 2019

Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, John Healey MP, addressing the LHG fringe meeting.

So we were off to a good start, with the compositing meeting coming straightaway on the Saturday evening. Quite a few CLPs and some affiliated organisations had submitted the Labour Campaign for Council Housing model resolution, or variations of it. Labour Housing Group’s own resolution, put together following a lively discussion of the outcomes of Shelter’s Social Housing Commission at our AGM in March, contained many of the same issues.

There was fundamentally little disagreement between many of the delegates about what we should be doing to address the housing crisis. All agreed that we need a major programme of council house building, that housing should be at the heart of our campaigning efforts to win the next general election, and that the Right To Buy must end, though this could be accompanied by an option to buy a discounted home from private sector stock.

To my delight, no-one argued against compulsory purchase of unoccupied empty tower blocks, removing restrictions for councils to build new homes (by which LHG had meant counting investment against the PSBR), or abolishing Assured Shorthold Tenancies (ASTs). Nor was there any major falling out about the need for indefinite tenancies and the introduction of rent caps in the private rented sector whether Bedroom Tax should be abolished, or the need to build energy efficient homes.

There were, however, several contentious issues, and we took some time to explore them. Key amongst these were the question of whether it is necessary to state how much to spend on building the 155,000 public (social) rented homes to be built each year by the next Labour Government, and whether all new homes should be built to a lifetime homes standard.

Two other issues proved worthy of longer discussion, the first of which – retrofitting sprinklers and replacing combustible cladding in high rise tower blocks – will cause no surprise. Arguments were put forward for this to happen in all social housing tower blocks, to be paid for by the Government, and this view won the day.

The second issue was whether Housing Associations should be brought back under local authority control. From amongst the delegates present, there were several horror stories about the behaviour of these housing bodies which started their lives aiming to help to meet housing need and now seem, in the case of at least a number of the larger ones, to see themselves as private businesses beyond the reach of tenants, local councillors or indeed the government. The final wording in the composite, to “Give councils the powers and resources to take housing associations under direct council control” was intended as a last resort where the housing provider did not pay attention to the case made for them to mend their ways!

When it came to the housing session at Conference, the Housing and Homelessness composites came on the very last day, somewhat overshadowed by the dramatic events at the Supreme Court the day before and the recall of MPs to Parliament that day. So in the event it was just as well that John Healey had not been down on the programme to speak – but I felt this was quite a disappointment, given the profile that housing should have in our General Election campaign. I was also disappointed that Jeremy Corbyn mentioned only building council houses in his speech, ignoring the impact that could have come from telling young people that we will abolish ASTs and stop them having to move every 5 minutes. As John Healey often points out, for once, our current Leader needs no convincing about the importance of progressive Labour housing policies.

The housing composite resolutions passed by Conference can be found here.

At LHG’s two fringe meetings (“Time for Public Housing Revolution”, and a second meeting with SERA and others, “A home shouldn’t cost the earth: How Labour can address the housing and climate crises), people were in no doubt about the need for housing to be at the heart of our campaigning. As John Healey said, we must get across that only Labour can put in place what is needed, and give people hope once more.

And giving hope back to people about a decent approach to providing housing was very much called for this year at Conference. The visible need for this was obvious, since no-one can have failed to be dismayed by the large number of tents, people sleeping in doorways, and people begging that we passed every day on our way to and from the conference centre in Brighton.  Despite going to several fringe meetings where homelessness was discussed, I uncovered no explanation for this big increase in the system failing to prevent people becoming homelessness other than the ones we all know about: sanctions, Universal Credit, Local Housing Allowance rates; sky-high PRS rents; and not building enough affordable public housing in the city.

I left Brighton feeling that we had done a good job on outlining what we must do when we are in office – but a little dismayed at what there is still to do to bring housing to the forefront of Labour’s collective campaigning mind. Oh well, back to the doorstep for me, then!

By Sheila Spencer, Secretary, Labour Housing Group

Blog Post

Can Labour deliver 100,000 social homes annually within five years?

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>by Monimbo</strong></span>
by Monimbo

Senior housing policy expert writing under a pseudonym.

This was the headline promise from the leaked version of Labour’s manifesto. How feasible is it?
Labour seems to have stepped back from a much more ambitious – arguably, far too ambitious – target of delivering 500,000 affordable homes over a five-year parliament. The new pledge – if it is included in the final manifesto – is still ambitious but appears much more realistic. It says ‘By the end of the next Parliament we will be building at least 100,000 council and housing association homes a year for genuinely affordable rent or sale’. Let’s have a closer look at what it would require.
Assuming for the moment that ‘genuinely affordable’ has the same meaning as under the coalition, the statistics show that neither Labour nor the coalition came close to delivering 100,000 units in recent years. DCLG’s live table 1000 shows that Labour’s peak output was 61,090 in 2010/11, and the coalition managed 66,700 in 2014/15. Output fell sharply in the following year, to only 32,630, because the end of the previous financial year had been the cut-off date for the previous Affordable Homes Programme.
The pre-election Tory government had a target of ‘delivering 275,000 new affordable homes between 2015 and 2020’, suggesting output of 55,000 per year, far below Labour’s new target but higher than current performance (albeit, of course, the definition of ‘affordable’ is now widening and its meaning in the this context isn’t defined). In crude terms, therefore, Labour is both aiming to almost double the Tories’ planned output and tighten the definitions to make affordability ‘genuine’.
Can it be done? The first and most obvious requirement is money. John Healey, Labour’s housing spokesperson, developed his ideas on a Labour building programme in reports for the Fabian Society and for the Smith Institute a couple of years ago. The chart shows how the programme would build up over 5 years, from about the level that it’s at now.

Roll this forward to start two years later, in 2017/18, and you get an idea of what Labour’s programme might be. Just over a fifth would be non-grant-funded, which now seems a little unambitious given that the NHF’s regular bulletins show about 40% of homes get no grant funding. Healey’s Smith Institute paper also forecast 16,000 homes coming from developer contributions, of which 80% would require grant: in fact, NHF figures suggest about 40% of homes come via developer contributions, most without grant funding. The proportions with nil grant and via developer contributions heavily overlap, and of course more grant would be needed if rents were to be ‘genuinely affordable’, but the NHF figures suggest that the Healey plan is far from unrealistic in its expectations of how much can be achieved without grant.
Healey’s costings rely heavily on savings in housing benefit, which of course are real but accrue over the long term, and the credibility of the plan when judged by bodies like the OBR and IFS hangs on the immediate capital and revenue costs. The main element of his plan would require grant levels of £60,000 per unit to deliver many more dwellings for let at social rents, rising to about 78,000 (out of the total 100,000 target) in the fifth year. This would cost about £4.6 billion in capital in the final year, without taking account of savings in the benefits bill.
How feasible is that level of expenditure? As it happens, it’s comparable to spending in the last year of Labour’s National Affordable Housing Programme, which invested an average £3 billion per year and reached close to £4 billion in 2010/11. After taking into account the limited inflation since then, there is hardly any difference between to two. Furthermore, as Red Brick readers know, the Tory government is currently investing a massive £50 billion in housing, via grants, loans and guarantees, over the period to 2020/21. Only some 16% of this is destined for affordable housing. Even with Labour’s apparent commitment to keeping the Help to Buy scheme, there is plenty of scope for redirecting more of this money into social housing.
Of course there are many other pieces of the jigsaw that need to be put in place, not all of which can be examined here. First, social landlords’ finances have to be stabilised, which means a coherent policy on social rents to replace the frequent changes and recent drastic cuts made by the Tories. Second, the council housing finance settlement, which John Healey pioneered as minister, needs to be reinstated as he originally intended (it has been ripped to shreds by the Tories). Third, reforms will be needed to achieve more planning permissions, developer contributions and land supply, building on the work of the Lyons commission. Fourth, especially following the EU referendum, there is a growing problem in the building industry of both capacity and standards. Fifth, there is urgent work needed on the Tories’ so-called welfare reforms to ensure that the worst elements are curbed and that tenants can pay their rents. And sixth, we must not (like the Tories) neglect the existing stock, which also needs massive investment to maintain and exceed Labour’s very successful Decent Homes Standard.
This is why building up to higher output over five years, making full use of housing associations, councils and developer contributions, is very sensible. It not only allows the financial contribution to be stepped up progressively but also gives time to tackle the other massive challenges of delivering such a big change in government housing investment priorities. But no one should argue either that the programme isn’t feasible financially or that it’s not needed. This programme is ambitious but, with care and effort by a new dedicated Minister of Housing, it could be delivered.

Blog Post

Trump will be bad for housing too

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>by Monimbo</strong></span>
by Monimbo

Senior housing policy expert writing under a pseudonym.

A foreclosed home in Las Vegas. Photo: Max Whittaker for The New York Times.
A foreclosed home in Las Vegas. Photo: Max Whittaker for The New York Times.

If social housing provision in the United States is already highly marginalised and directed towards the very poor, it’s due to get worse under the next president as budgets are hacked back. And the appointment of the new secretary for housing could be the worst news of all.
Social housing in the US caters for barely one per cent of households, and is disproportionately occupied by the very poor, with one-third earning less than $10,000 per year. Nearly half of tenants are black, even though black people make up only 19 per cent of the population overall. But the Housing and Urban Development department, HUD, has a budget of $47 billion overall, because its housing voucher programme assists millions more poor households in the private rented sector. With the focus of its spending so strongly on the poorest and on black communities, it’s easy to see it as a potential target for Trump’s budget cuts.
Traditionally HUD has been a low-key cabinet post awarded to a competent administrator (the incumbent is Julian Castro, a Clinton supporter and former city mayor). Even previous Republican presidents usually put it in safe hands. But Trump has appointed the uniquely unqualified Ben Carson to be the new secretary, a man whom even his friends describe as having ‘no government experience’ or ability to run a federal agency. However, Carson does have one characteristic that may have suggested to Trump that he was right for the post: he’s black, and originally from a poor background. Perhaps because of this he was initially thought to be the only pick for the HUD position who had actually lived in a public housing scheme (it later turned out he hadn’t).
What he does have, apart from his ‘gifted hands’ as a highly competent brain surgeon, is a strong commitment to small government that means he’s hardly likely to fight for the bigger budget that HUD badly needs. At present, almost all new rented housing is created for middle-income earners and above. Despite being a person of colour, Carson’s on record as opposing Obama’s attempts to get HUD to put more social housing in wealthier neighbourhoods and to challenge discriminatory practices that the agency has tolerated. Obama, according to Carson, is guilty not just of social engineering but of failed socialism. In the UK we would call it trying to create mixed communities. In the US the principles are enshrined in the Fair Housing Act, and it would be an extraordinary irony if it were a black housing secretary that had to be taken to court for failing to observe this particular law, because of his belief that poor people must continue to live in poor areas.
Indeed, Carson’s priorities, if he follows them when he takes up the HUD post later this month, could hardly be more misplaced. Federal housing policy has in key respects been a disaster for the poor and for minorities in particular. The failed, state-backed mortgage giant Fannie Mae was guilty of leaving many poor households destitute as a result of the crisis in and collapse of the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage market in which it had had a major role. Empty homes that have been foreclosed (repossessed) are often mismanaged (see photo), especially those located in poor areas, making it more likely that the former owners are still in debt and unable to obtain new credit. Homelessness has surged: more than half a million people are living on the streets, in their cars or in official shelters. Several cities, such as San Francisco and St Louis, seem to have decided to launch a war on the homeless rather than on homelessness. At the same time, social housing is far too small a sector to cater for the millions in need who are, of course, now much less likely to ever become home owners. New housing policies, like those which Bill de Blasio is pushing in New York, are needed across the United States.
The incoming housing secretary, however, believes that ‘poverty is really more of a choice than anything else’. Oh, and he doesn’t believe in evolution either, or that abortion should be permitted in any circumstances, and he thinks that gun control in pre-war Germany may have fostered the rise of Hitler and produced the holocaust. He was also the would-be presidential candidate with an unusual theory about the origin of the pyramids, leading one person to tweet that ‘it’s amazing how one can be a neurosurgeon and a dimwit at the same time’. Welcome to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson.