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.