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What’s wrong with the Conservative housing proposals for Two Cities?

Cities of London and Westminster residents experience the housing crisis at its most acute and extreme. Families are forced to move away from their communities because there just are not enough genuinely affordable homes.  From Middlesex and Mansell Street and Golden Lane to Tachbrook and Churchill Gardens, from Hyde Park to Pimlico, families are living in overcrowded conditions, where children find it difficult to study.  Private renters across the Cities are left with no certainty about the future of their home and soaring rents.

Let’s not forget that Conservative politicians in Westminster were responsible for a loss of affordable homes in the Homes for Votes Scandal and for 50 years, Westminster City Council was at the forefront of efforts to limit the obligations of local authorities to homeless people.  In advance of the original Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, Westminster tried to persuade MPs to water down the legislation. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, WCC developed ways of ‘gatekeeping’ homeless people from accessing their rights.  Thousands more received ‘offers’ of insecure tenancies in the Private Rented Sector creating further inequality and leaving them in uncertainty. 

Last week, the Conservative Government has announced two poorly thought-through policies which do nothing to address the long-term housing crisis or tackle the immediate struggles that households are facing.

The Right to Buy for Housing Associations has been trailed for years by this Government.  I’ve been campaigning against it ever since it was first suggested. Some Housing Association tenants already have a preserved Right to Buy as a result of living in a home transferred for a Local Authority. Housing Associations themselves are deeply sceptical about the proposals with many of them questioning how the homes sold under the Right to Buy would be replaced.  I hope that Housing Associations will stand up to these policies.

The proposals for tenants to use Housing Benefit to pay for a mortgage reveal a serious lack of understanding of the challenges families claiming Housing Benefit face.  The Government has provided no evidence for how many households would have nearly enough savings for a deposit on a home. It is not clear with mortgage lenders have been consulted on any of the detail of the proposals or whether they are prepared to bring forward mortgages in these circumstances.

It says it all about this Government that when they run out of ideas, that they turn to the failed policies of the 1980s Thatcher governments.

Instead of these policies which will just reduce the number of social homes, Cities of London and Westminster needs a MP who will stand up for long term sustained Council Homebuilding Programme. I’ve delivered council homes in London and championed delivery of council homes across the country. Cities of London and Westminster needs and MP who believes that Housing is a Human Right and who would call for a review of homelessness legislation putting Housing as a Human Right at the heart of the process. But at the moment, there simply are not the resources available within local authorities to administer this system.

The Homelessness Reduction Act must be funded properly and Local Housing Allowance cap must be lifted.  After decades in which their experience has been disregarded, it is vital that the voices of homeless people are listened to by decision-makers.  As a housing activist, these are the issues that I have campaigned on for years and as the first ever Labour MP for Cities of London and Westminster, these are the housing proposals I would stand up for.

NB: RB would be open to any contributions from any other candidate running for selection in Two Cities as well as other constituencies.

<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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Buy a House on Benefits? Why not!

Right to Buy (RTB) – argued to be the most successful transfers of wealth since its introduction in April 1980. Yet despite successfully giving aspirational working-class families the ability to participate in the property-owning democracy it once again is under scrutiny.

Incredibly over 1.9 million homes have been sold through RTB since its inception, a take-up that demonstrates its sheer popularity. Once commonplace under Local Authorities the offer has now been made to tenants of Housing Association (HA). But for many this is a step too far.

Labour, Guido Fawkes and Shelter condemn the proposal

On the right, we have seen Guido Fawkes condemn the “buy a house on benefits” scheme as a “stupid idea”. Shelter has claimed extending RTB “couldn’t come at a worse time”. While also suggesting “the government should be building more social homes, not selling them off”. Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Lisa Nandy, recently called into question Boris Johnson’s announcement.

She challenged Johnson over the feasibility of allowing people to use housing benefit towards a mortgage. Tweeting recently whether lenders are “on board” with the Prime Minister’s first proposal after his disastrous vote of no confidence. Nandy also claims the new proposal would “make the housing crisis worse”.

Questions over feasibility and acceptance by the market

The scheme could help 17,000 families a year according to the report on the pilot published in February 2021. However, it found half of the homes under the scheme weren’t replaced despite promises of “one-for-one” replacement. Those “replaced” were often found to be as a more expensive form of tenure. This in large part driven by a Tory grant programme favouring such forms of tenure. Arguably fair kop to call into question.

Notwithstanding the above, we have seen the rise of the for-profit registered provider backed by private equity and institutions. Who have been piling into the sector lured in by government backed income in a supply constrained market. Whether social or affordable rent, or controversial shared ownership, the private sector has been licking its lips.

If these capital providers can accommodate such government-backed income streams, why cannot lenders?

But the proposals actually spur on new supply

Secondly, the argument around the need for one-for-one replacement seems one based on a lack of understanding of basic arithmetic. For those on the left, many feel a tenancy for life forms part of housing as a human right.  On that basis, whether an aspirational working-class family lives in a social rented home, or one where they have exercised the Right to Buy, morally this principle holds true. Under RTB total housing stock does not deplete and new build from recycled capital ultimately still contributes to new supply.

The family who can now use their in-work benefits towards a mortgage become the beneficiaries directly of the subsidy. Not the HAs who fail to do repairs and pay their executives investment banker wages. At a time where the National Housing Federation announces an independent panel to review the poor-quality homes endemic under its watch, why would we want to prevent aspirational working-class families from the opportunity to fix and maintain their own home, if they have the means to do so. Ultimately giving them an opportunity to escape the ever-lasting trap of poor housing management they currently endure under HAs.

But how, after all, in a supply constrained housing system does adding new housing stock make the housing crisis “worse”?

Global market headwinds make opportune timing to support demand

All sides have now sought to strawman the Right to Buy, blaming it for the loss of much needed social housing stock. The debate has not become one of supply. Instead some argue these recent measures merely add to demand-side pressures, which an already distorted market does not need. Yet in a time of globally increasing interest rates and a recession, when else is there a better time to broaden access to those on low incomes and counter market forces.

Furthermore, HAs often have low levels of debt against them with the homes valued on the books at Existing Use Value (EUV). Such a low level of debt allows the Government to provide meaningful discounts and unlock wealth for working class families. Of course, the HA lobby and HM Treasury will have kittens if they have to sell their silver, but ultimately who benefits?

Boris Johnson is playing to the aspirational working class

Whatever your politics, broadening access to an affordable home or home ownership should be the end goal. Yes, the Labour Housing Group has taken a stance to abolish Right to Buy. But I argue this policy is targeted at those Labour must seek to win back from the Tories. Boris Johnson is sending a key message to the millions of tenants living under often dreadful Housing Association conditions, that he cares about them.

Meanwhile, Labour and much of the left-leaning housing industry, condemns what has previously been a hugely successful policy for those who have benefitted from it. Right to Buy and the need to provide more social rented homes are not mutually exclusive.

Without means-testing tenancies how else can we recycle capital from those in social housing who can afford to buy?

Many of those who will exercise their right will be those who can afford to, who are still living under the benefits of a social tenancy. These include the members of Parliament who remain in their social rented flat, while earning a top 10% salary in the Commons, as well as the 117,000 households (16%) in London living in social rented accommodation  resided in by the top 40% of earners in the capital.

But if we are not to bring in means testing of social rented accommodation throughout a tenancy, is not recycling capital from sales into the provision of new homes an admirable end goal?

I certainly think so if the sellers can keep the receipts. We can argue about whether we “replace” less than half with social or affordable rent. Or we can recognise the use of the benefit systems ability to increase the overall level of stock in a housing market beholden to NIMByism. After all an election message to aspirational working-class families that they have a chance at closing their own personal wealth inequality gap is compelling.

<strong>Christopher Worrall</strong>
Christopher Worrall

Chris is the Editor of Red Brick blog and sits on the Labour Housing Group Executive Committee.

He currently is Chair of Poplar and Limehouse CLP, co-hosts the Priced Out podcast and is the Local Government and Housing Member Policy group lead for the Fabian Society.

He writes in a personal capacity.

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Housing in the Australian election

Housing loomed large in the campaign debate running up to the recent Australian federal election. In fact, rival plans for first-time buyer assistance were central to the rival pitches of the two main parties in the final week of the contest.

The overarching context for this is the concern provoked by declining owner-occupancy rates in a country that still thinks of itself as a home ownership nation. By UK standards, the overall downward trend has been quite modest – the past 20 years has seen owner occupation drifting down by around 3-4 percentage points to 67 per cent. But that conceals much faster rates of decline among young adult cohorts.

Again, as in Britain, falling home ownership worries have been aggravated by the unexpected COVID house price boom which has seen prices jump by 30% since 2019 – a substantially more marked increase than the UK’s equivalent market climb.

Add to that, the recent spike in rent inflation greater than at any time since 2008, and it’s obvious that the pandemic significantly aggravated Australia’s longstanding housing affordability challenge.

So, in this battle that ended with the centre-left Labor Party (yes, that’s the correct spelling) regaining power after nearly a decade in opposition, what exactly were the rival housing plans pitched by the two main parties?

With Labor having retreated from significant reforms to private landlord tax breaks pledged in the previous two elections, there was actually less distinction between the housing offers of the main protagonists this time round. Even so, the difference between Labor’s 2022 platform and that of the Liberal/National governing coalition remained notable.

The home ownership offers

The main area of contest was of course home ownership. Both parties committed to expanding the existing national low deposit mortgage scheme for first-time buyers predicated on a government guarantee enabling downpayments of 5% rather than the standard 20%. This may now be made available to around half of all those entering home ownership.

Beyond this, and targeting much the same group, Labor pledged to initiate a national shared equity programme. Complementing existing state government schemes in Victoria and Western Australia, and subject to applicant income and property price caps, this would see the federal government taking an equity stake of up to 30% in an existing dwelling and up to 40% in a newly built home. The model is very similar to the UK Government’s Help to Buy scheme in both content and name.

Deriding Labor’s approach as one in which ‘the government wants to own your home’, on the ropes in the opinion polls, and clearly seeking a point of difference as the campaign neared its end, the Prime Minister further ramped up the debate by pitching a new and novel proposal. Aspirant first-time buyers would be enabled to draw on otherwise inaccessible pension (or ‘superannuation’) savings for home purchase.

Although widely criticised as inflationary, as well as inequitable, the ‘super for housing’ proposal was considered by some a political masterstroke, since it leveraged a libertarian sensibility across the electorate at no (immediate) cost to government. It also served the partisan aim of attacking the pension industry disliked by conservative Australians not only because of its compulsory contributions but also because some funds are union-linked.

Social housing

While featuring comparatively minimally in election media coverage and debate, a number of other potentially significant housing commitments were aired in the contest – mainly by Labor. These included Labor’s pledge for a national social and affordable investment program to generate 30,000 dwellings over six years.

Considering that Australia has been latterly constructing only around 3,000 social housing units annually, with the federal government making a near zero contribution, this is notable – yet also modest. Factoring in expected population growth, it would be enough to slow, but not to reverse, the longstanding decline in social housing representation in the housing system (now only just over 4% of total occupied dwellings).

The most novel aspect of the social and affordable housing investment proposal is its financing through investment returns from an ‘off balance sheet’ future fund. The attraction of such a structure is that, under relevant accountancy conventions, the cost would not score as government debt. Some readers may detect parallels with the long-running UK debate on the accounting treatment of council housing investment.

As far as social housing is concerned, the Liberal/National election platform extended only to expanding the quantum of community housing debt guaranteed by government – a facility of only very limited value without the matching subsidy that the Coalition declined to offer.

Institutional reform and strategy

Finally, and once again, with a very low media profile, Labor’s election pitch included some significant institutional reforms which, with the Party now installed in government, we can expect to take shape in coming months. These include, firstly, the creation of a National Housing Supply and Affordability Council (NHSAC), a body charged with analysing housing needs and provision – a remit similar to the UK’s erstwhile National Housing and Planning Advice Unit (NHPAU).

NHSAC will sit within a new national housing agency, Housing Australia. This will absorb the former administrative roles of the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC) for first-time buyer assistance schemes, as well as the housing future fund. Perhaps opening up more far-reaching possibilities for the future, Housing Australia will also take responsibility for a ‘National Housing and Homeless Plan’. This, it would be hoped, will cement the federal government back into an active an ambitious role in the national housing system – something unseen for more than a decade.

Until Labor can find the stomach to revisit fundamental tax reform many of us would argue that the scope for fixing Australia’s dysfunctional housing system will remain extremely limited. At the same time, the incoming government’s program contains some housing green shoots that are still worth celebrating.

<strong>Hal Pawson</strong>
Hal Pawson

Professor Hal Pawson, is based at the City Futures Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney

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Why is moderately priced housing hard to build?

Before recent local elections here in the UK, Dr Jenny Schuetz participated in an online Fabian Society member policy webinar: “Is flexible zoning the solution to the housing crisis?” hosted by Councillor Shama Tatler. Dr Schuetz discussed how in the United States land use practices have made it hard to build moderately priced housing.

Schuetz argues we have baked a lack of supply into our land use practices, especially for lower cost rental housing. She stated we don’t build enough smaller moderately price homes and that places with the highest rents are building the least amount of housing. Sadly, much like in the UK, the US has also designed a system that makes this an inevitable outcome.

The zoning system in the US differs somewhat from the UK discretionary planning system to some degree. For example, zoning in most parts of the US, including in large cities, reserves two-thirds to three-quarters of land for detached single family homes. Yet this system does allow you to build as of right. Effectively setting out a straight-forward set of rules on things such as size of lot and the height of building. If these follow rules can get permission without having to go through an extensive public process.

Long, complicated and uncertain processes provide significant barriers to housing affordability

For detached houses this is the norm. Should you want to build apartments or other types of housing then you must go through an additional approval process. It is this process that requires developers and housebuilders to show up in front of community meetings. Present plans, receive feedback, and requires formal approval from a local government body. Often a long, complicated, and uncertain process that provides a significant barrier to housing affordability.

Sound familiar?

Discretionary approval processes translate into much higher costs for housing that is approved and proposals often get stopped along the way. It is this element of the process that takes more time and costs more money. All because the existing process is set up to favour existing residents, in particular long-term homeowners.

For example, someone who may have lived locally for 30 years and doesn’t want their community to change. Schuetz argues these opinions are given more weight than someone who doesn’t currently live in the community. Meanwhile the person who shows up and says I would love to live here, but I can’t afford to move in so a new apartment would be great for me has their voice diminished.

Discretionary approval processes unfairly favour homeowners and existing residents

Dr Schuetz believes it is these approval processes that by design do not give equal weight to people who show up and talk at community meetings. She argues that suburban communities can often be where the problems are most acute. In these suburbs you find very large homes on large lots that are short distances away from public transit. Often where the median lot size is half an acre that only a single family can occupy. The only way to add more housing is to replace these single-family homes with more dwelling units. Under the current zoning system in the US such changes are explicitly prohibited.

But Schuetz isn’t just arguing for more large-scale apartment blocks. As this construction costs for these types of homes in such locations are often prohibitive. Instead, she argues for more row houses or condominiums that can be three, four, even up to six storeys where such methods of construction are feasible. In essence, the argument is to build more homes on those single-family plots. One of the nice things about this strategy is it does not require much land assembly from developers.

Schuetz also argues this kind of human scale development does not change the character of the community that much and offers substantial cost savings over new single-family homes. It is a strategy that can work in many places as doesn’t require big parcels of land or large-scale developers. Effectively it provides family sized businesses projects they are capable of delivering quickly.

Places in the US are exploring new ways to reduce barriers to housing affordability

Minneapolis provides an example of places exploring new ways to reduce barriers. In this city they effectively legalised duplexes in the Autumn of 2018. While in Oregon it also allowed state-wide reform for accessory dwelling units and duplexes. For apartment buildings the approach focuses on transit and commercial corridors. So, for six, eight, and ten storey apartment buildings, Massachusetts last year passed a state-wide rule recommending all localities allow apartments within certain distances of commuter rail stations.

Dr Schuetz noted how localities often find back-door rules to effectively not build things they do not want to build. The way zoning works is in the first instance the state can either prohibit apartment buildings or legalise them. If the state says they must legalise, then what dimensional requirements do you set? If a state decides it will only allow two storey apartment buildings, despite not being unviable, effectively it has prevented new homes from materialising. Other requirements include minimum parking standards that come with additional costs to each new unit of housing.

Legalising housing development is just the first step

There is an infinite number of restrictions to make it financially infeasible for developers states and localities can put in place. To achieve a flexible zoning system legalising apartments and middle housing is the first step. However, the further regulations will require attention as well if we want to see a meaningful response. State governments have a lot more authority over land use than the Federal government. They create local governments and designate their land use powers and fiscal authority.

Local governments fund services like schools based on local property taxes. Local finances impact decisions concerning new homes, as the are often assessed on local homeowners property values. States effectively can push back on localities if they want to do so. Meanwhile Federal government has very limited authority and few direct policy levers at its disposal to force the contrary.

Political opposition from locals who oppose change are the primary major barrier preventing moderately price housing

Unfortunately, effective policy solutions face steep political opposition and the politics on the ground is very similar in the US as it is in the UK. Long-term homeowners like the neighbourhoods the way they are and haven’t fully internalised how expensive it is to buy property today. They are often reluctant to change and are protective of their property values. All these personal, political, and financial incentives that reinforce the behaviour of long-term homeowners who carry a lot of weight in the political process.

Yes, there are tiny green shoots of promise in several cities and states. In place that have managed to achieve relatively small-scale reforms tinkering around the edge of the process. But we need to build more promising political coalitions against long-term homeowners. And yes, these coalitions must go much further if we are ever to get meaningful reform passed and more moderately priced homes.

Interested in housing development economics, property taxes and local public finance relationships in the US, incentives for zoning, and the politics behind it? Find out more in Dr Jenny Schuetz new book called “Fixer Upper How to Repair America’s Broken Housing System”.

<strong>Christopher Worrall</strong>
Christopher Worrall

Chris is the Editor of Red Brick blog and sits on the Labour Housing Group Executive Committee.

He currently is Chair of Poplar and Limehouse CLP, co-hosts the Priced Out podcast and is the Local Government and Housing Member Policy group lead for the Fabian Society.

He writes in a personal capacity.

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What does the Queen’s Speech mean for housing?

Despite presenting a large volume of legislation, overall the policy proposals in the Queen’s 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, and regulation of the private rented sector and is campaigning for housing to be set in legislation as 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 or 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 or 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’s abolition  of 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 for 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 a 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 on housing supply and on communities lets 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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The progressive case for street votes

This week’s Queen’s Speech was a key opportunity for the government to announce serious plans to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. But while some individual announcements were welcome, overall they failed to go far enough. It was concerning to see recent rowing back on the commitment to building 300,000 homes a year, following the abandonment of plans for planning reform last year. Action to make housing – the single biggest item of household expenditure – more affordable is vital in the context of our long-term housing crisis.

However, there was one item in the speech which progressives should view with interest – the proposal for ‘street votes’. When this was announced, some were surprised by the broad array of progressive figures and groups that had already endorsed trials of the idea. This group includes housing associations, community groups, the chair of the Fabian Society Local Government and Housing member policy group, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the past president of the RIBA, Shelter’s former head of policy Toby Lloyd, campaigning organisations Generation Rent and Priced Out, two of Sadiq Khan’s design advocates, and even Labour’s former Deputy Mayor of London Nicky Gavron. More broadly, suburban intensification is being championed by progressive politicians around the world, from Jacinda Arden’s government in New Zealand to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US.

But what are street votes? Although we will have to wait for more details of the government’s plan to emerge, the idea of street votes has been advanced by a variety of organisations over the last several years. The idea is to give local residents a power to allow more housing where there is a broad consensus. Street votes are only a supplement to existing means of getting planning permission, a way of adding more gentle density where there is support on the street to do so.

Instead of the only option being to seek planning permission on a case-by-case basis, street votes would simply let the residents of a street agree, by a large majority of perhaps two-thirds, to a plan that would allow additional housing on that street, according to a pre-specified design. Notwithstanding reports in the ever-excitable Daily Mail, they do not mean that the neighbours get to vote on your individual application for an extension.

Each property owner would then be free to use the permission, or not, in their own time. There are strict limits to ensure that the overall effect helps the place and does not harm anyone else, including through impacts on daylight and congestion.  And tenants, not absentee landlords, would get the vote, which is why street votes have been endorsed by Dan Wilson Craw of Generation Rent.

With millions struggling under the high cost of housing and now the rapidly rising cost of living, measures to address high housing costs are more needed than ever. Where successful, street votes would produce more floorspace and more homes, enabling money spent on rent and house prices to go further, and reducing the cost of living for hard-pressed families.

Haringey’s Labour council in 2010 showed the potential for what such a policy can achieve. In South Tottenham, housing constraints faced by the Haredi Jewish community led to community leaders, councillors and planners working together to agree a right for residents to extend their homes by as much as 1.5 storeys, alongside a strict design code. This has had high uptake, won the support of the broader community, and allowed growing families to benefit from additional space instead of being priced out of the local area.

Haringey extension

Importantly, street votes give control over the character and shape of an area to communities themselves. Councils in areas at the sharp end of the housing crisis are often frustrated by landowners and promoters gaming the site allocation process by land-banking instead of putting land forward for development. Concerns about corruption are common. But none of this can happen with street votes. The plan will only be passed if a large majority of residents want it to be passed. There is no messy, behind-the-scenes process of political donations and private negotiations between councils, landowners and developers.

Small builders have suffered terribly in recent decades from a worsening shortage of small sites. Many have seen their businesses fail. Our current rigid system of land allocation means that development is typically consigned to a few large, poorly served, car-dependent sites. This tilts the market in favour of larger developers, allowing a few big players to dominate the market. By contrast, street votes could deliver many more micro-sites, allowing small builders to regain their presence in the market and help to train the next generation of skilled tradespeople.

The densification enabled by street votes would also benefit the environment. Suburbs and rural areas generate far more carbon emissions per head than areas of gentle density with terraced houses and flats. Inhabitants can walk, cycle or take public transport to work rather than being dependent upon car use to get around. Flats are better insulated and require less heating than large suburban housing. And street votes could help generate funds to retrofit existing housing with better insulation.

Finally and crucially, the land value uplift created by a street vote would be taxed. When a house gains permission for an extension, its value increases. With street votes, as more generally, homeowners and landlords are required to pay a tax on this uplift to their local authority. This means that if street votes work to generate more housing, this will generate more money for hard-pressed local authorities to spend on the infrastructure, social housing and public services on which communities rely. If street votes generate as much additional housing as some think it might, that could mean billions of pounds more to local authorities.

We should not allow the idea of street votes to become identified solely with the Conservative Party. There are many reasons why progressives, too, should support trials of street votes. There is no guarantee that these ideas will work, or that the government will implement them well – but as long as the policy is carefully handled, there are few obvious drawbacks to a trial. If they do work, they might help many families, communities and councils improve the places where they live, and do something to help the many struggling under the sky-high cost of housing.

<strong>Shreya Nanda</strong>
Shreya Nanda

Shreya Nanda is an economist at a think tank, and previously at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

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A more equitable housing model for Cornwall

Hundreds of thousands visit Cornwall every year, and who can blame them? With our long beaches, hidden coves, world-famous cream teas (jam first) and stunning scenery, it’s no wonder that so many people want to enjoy everything our wonderful part of the world has to offer.

Growing up in Cornwall I know how important tourism is to our local economy, but over the last few decades the money tourism brings in is also driving people out. A dream holiday destination is turning into a nightmare for locals who are being forced out of the place they grew up in.

Right now in Cornwall there are vastly more properties on AirBnb than on RightMove – to rent or buy, and those that are on the market often come with astronomical price tags. On top of that, house prices are rising much faster than wages, which in Cornwall are already significantly lower than the national average.

This is a situation that’s been decades in the making, but has been made even worse by the cost of living crisis and historically high inflation rates.

The huge expansion in holiday lets and second homes has collapsed our private rented sector, and pushed house prices so astronomically high that even so-called ‘affordable’ properties are far beyond the grasp of those who need them.

We’ve found ourselves in the perverse situation where the very workers who support our key industries, like tourism, have been forced to move out of the county because they can’t afford to live here. It’s not simply a problem for those workers either, our already understaffed health services are struggling to attract staff when the cost of housing, and living, is so high.

The vast majority of my school friends have left Cornwall because they either couldn’t find the jobs they wanted here, or more often – they just couldn’t afford to live here any more. And for the ones that have stayed, there’s little hope of them being able to branch away from the parental home any time soon. Ask anyone of my generation down here and they’ll tell you the same story.

The huge increase in holiday lets has therefore exposed the instability and unreliability of a housing model that relies on private letting and sales, but for those who are priced out of the private market, the social housing and council housing sectors offer little to no comfort.

The housing stock lost through right to buy has never been replenished, and the urgency of the problem makes it even more shameful that over the last year Cornwall Council built just 14 council houses.

Meanwhile, waiting lists get longer and longer – almost 15,000 in Cornwall at the last count, with families being offered emergency accommodation not only out of the region – but out of the country – with the nearest help available in Wales.

Local politicians can and must take action now. As part of its “asset release” scheme the council should evaluate which sites are suitable for housing development and work with communities and local developers to build council, social, and genuinely affordable housing.

Councillors can also ensure the local development plan (LDP) prioritises housing, introducing and enforcing quotas on social and genuinely affordable housing in new developments. The LDP and neighbourhood plans also need to recognise that curbs on second homes can’t focus only on new builds, they need to include redevelopments to address housing stock in areas popular with tourists that are being decimated through a backdoor.

We also need fundamental changes to legislation, putting power into the hands of local people to ensure we have a system that works for the people of Cornwall, and one that unlocks our ability to build all types of home for all types of people.

The government makes much of its commitment to localism and levelling up, but we must challenge them to put their money where their mouth is. They must also devolve power to Cornwall to set our own housing priorities, allowing for council tax hikes on second homes, limiting holiday lets, and the creation of stronger protections for renters as vital first steps in reshaping our housing system.

The system is broken and we need radical political action now to not simply fix it, but to build a more equitable housing model that offers a secure future.

I grew up in a council house in St. Agnes, and I count myself lucky that our family didn’t simply have four walls and somewhere to sleep, but a home that gave us security – a place we could call our own, that we could decorate how we wanted, keep pets and build a future. We didn’t have to worry about our home being converted to a holiday let, face extortionate rent rises, or worry about leaving the community we’d for so long been a part of.

Our council house was a home, and everyone deserves to know that feeling.

<strong>Joe Vinson</strong>
Joe Vinson

Joe is from Truro and Falmouth CLP. He is also the National Secretary of LGBT Labour and Secretary of the Socialist Societies affiliated to the UK Labour Party.

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Labour must lead on the ‘Missing Middle’

Progressive Labour politicians should be leading the way on the delivery of gentle density and missing middle housing, not calling for bans on modest flats and apartment schemes.

Labour is missing a trick not leading on the creation of walkable urban living in communities dominated by single-family homes. Known as the ‘Missing Middle’, these housing options represent a whole variety of built forms. Built form that is compatible in size and scale with lower density neighbourhoods. It also provides diverse housing options that supports local shops, public transport and community-serving amenities. Middle housing would form part of a sustainable approach to the growing demand for walkability in our communities and the social need for housing.

What is ‘missing middle housing’?

Daniel Parolek argues for the reintroduction of these concepts in one of Planetizen’s top planning books ‘The Missing Middle’. Described as ‘middle’ because it sits in between mid-to-high-rise apartment buildings and your typical terraced, semi-detached, or detached homes. But many of these housing options have since gone ‘missing’, disappearing from new building stock figures or not being measured at all.

Whether young couples, teachers, paramedics, single professional women or baby boomers, many seek ways to live in a walkable neighbourhood. Many people also seek to live without the cost and maintenance burden of a terraced, semi-detached, or detached home. Or simply cannot afford to live in one. The ‘Missing Middle’ solves the mismatch between what is currently available in UK suburbia and the desire for walkable neighbourhoods.

Sadly, both Labour and the Conservatives are lacking in leadership in support of this type of built form. Instead, as we have seen from Croydon to Churchfields, local parties are kowtowing to NIMBYs in focus groups. These people trick them into believing that the real enemy is the person living in what are often the most affordable forms of accommodation. Flat dwellers and those residing in sub-divided houses.

We are preventing homes for those without children

Record numbers of women are reaching the age of 30 child-free, more than half (50.1 per cent) of women in England and Wales born in 1990 were without a child in 2020. This is almost three times higher than the figure in 1941 where 17.9 per cent of women were child free. Bearing this in mind we know that more households will be without children. Ignoring middle housing means we fail to provide for those who cannot afford to live in a family-sized house on their own.

But are young, highly educated, technology-driven millennials who desire mobile, walkable lifestyles that are prepared to exchange space for shorter commutes and mixed-use neighbourhoods a cause for concern? And does building new maisonettes, sub-divided townhouses, courtyard apartment schemes, or two to four storey apartment blocks really undermine the character of an area?

The correct answer is no if constructed to decent home standards. Politicians purporting to support policies that just focus on the three-bed family home are simply out of touch. Failing to address the needs of a shifting demographic, all based on an outdated myopic view of the world.

For the most part of the last century multi-unit or clustered housing types have been considered compatible with our communities. Often missing middle housing types have consisted of smaller units. This achieves higher density while maintaining connection to the streetscape without needing costly items such as lifts. Construction of such nature can come at a lower cost and increases build efficiency. It allows the creation of gentle density neatly placed into current residential and mixed-use development patterns.

Labour must not ban flats under any circumstances

To achieve real housing affordability, Labour cannot be standing on myopic outdated views such as “build houses, not flats”. The simple fact is we do not have enough of missing middle housing, which includes flats and sub-divided housing.

All too often apartment blocks with four to eight flats over four floors are said to be “too big”. Cited by those already well housed and more privileged than their broader communities. But we must choose our target base and we must draw the line somewhere. If we want to win elections should we be courting “would be” Labour voters who really want nothing other than to prevent change, or should we ask ourselves are these converts to our values, or are we traitors to ours?

If Labour wants to win marginals it needs to appeal to those who have Labour values inside them. Not by dragging out its stall to those who fail to recognise the damage caused by making our housing shortage worse. After all the middle aged, not the middle class are the real swing voters.

<strong>Chris Worrall</strong>
Chris Worrall

Editor of Red Brick Blog.

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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.

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The secret of council housing self-financing

On a cold January morning local councillors, tenants’ reps and Stephanie Cryan, Southwark’s lead councillor for housing, are walking around the Longfield estate in South Bermondsey. The estate was built between 1930 and 1950. Next to one of the old blocks are steps down to an air raid shelter, bricked-up when the war ended. There is a big archway built into one of the blocks for coal horses to pass through and the older blocks are only four floors high so the coal man would not have to walk up too far. The kitchens are small because middle class architects thought working class families spent too much time in the kitchen and should spend their time together in the living room.  

The councillors are asking for the communal staircases to be painted. Stephanie runs through the major works needed across the borough. The cost of keeping Southwark’s communal heating systems working, plus decarbonisation is £350m. On top of this is the cost of fire safety works, keeping lifts working and buildings watertight.

Walking around the estate, it is as well-kept as it can be without major investment, with no signs of any vandalism. The active Tenants and Residents Association has successfully campaigned for an outdoor gym and children’s play facilities. It is typical of thousands of estates across the country. If we can understand why residents on the Longfield estate are having to wait for their estate to be decorated we will understand the way council housing is funded, or rather underfunded.

The trail quickly gets tricky. The estate built by the old Bermondsey Borough Council, would have been funded by a mixture of government subsidy and local authority rates (now council tax) and borrowing. Where we are on firm ground is the knowledge that if the rents paid over the years by Longfield estate tenants had been ring-fenced between when the estate was built and today, the debt would have been paid off, the management and maintenance costs covered and there would be a substantial surplus to pay for the extensive modernisation of the estate. Unfortunately for many years the money paid by Longfield estate tenants and the costs of running the estate have been swallowed up by local and national rent and cost pooling. So more investigation is needed.

There is income pooling within the council. Over the years Southwark has had, exactly what Stephanie is describing today, more problematic estates that have demanded more extensive works to keep them liveable.

However the bigger picture is more significant. Historically council tenants’ rent money has leaked away to pay for other national and local commitments, such as keeping the rates bill down. A detailed history is provided by Martin Wicks, Labour Campaign for Council Housing in his blog:

https://thelabourcampaignforcouncilhousing.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/caseforcancellingchdebt.pdf

In the 1980 Housing Act the notion of a ring-fenced Housing Revenue Account was introduced. The idea was that within each council area tenants’ rents should be spent on paying off historic debts and the management and maintenance of their housing. As Wicks demonstrates, this turned out to be a fiction, with council tenants not on housing benefit paying towards the housing benefits of council tenants who needed support. Also, the Conservative Government imposed the Right to Buy on local councils, which still represents this country’s largest privatisation with 1.8m council homes being sold with an estimated value of £6.4m.

The financing of council housing was under the control of central Government, with councils only finding out what their annual allocation would be three months before the start of the financial year. The effect was that councils who were the custodians of a housing stock with a combined value of billions could only plan a year ahead, when a long-term asset management strategy was needed.

The last Labour Housing Minister, John Healey, listened to campaigners and decided that housing should truly be self-financing, at least in future. The idea of self-financing Housing Revenue Accounts was entirely sound, even in the context of historic injustices. Councils for the first time could implement a proper asset management strategy, over 30 years. Councils had certainty over their income, rents would increase with inflation and they could predict income from leaseholders’ service charges. On the expenditure side, councils could assess their stock and have a long-term plan for major works and management.

The problem with Healey’s sound policy was that the level of debt inherited by councils was determined by the incoming Conservative Government, committed to austerity. Wicks argues that the Treasury manipulated the debt settlement and imposed a debt settlement of £26bm, far higher than the actual debt. The debt was divided, unevenly, between the 169 English councils who still owned council housing. A critical assumption was that at least central Government would let councils get on with the running of their council housing.

The concept of self-financing Housing Revenue Accounts was introduced in the 2011 Localism Act and became operational in April 2012. Since its introduction, the financial situation for council tenants has become significantly worse.  There was no legal protection for local councils written into the Localism Act guaranteeing that the debt would be renegotiated or written-off if circumstances changed. However, critically, Part 7, Chapter 3, clause 169, does allow for the level of debt to be reassessed if there is a ‘change in any matter taken into account when making the original settlement’. Councils do not have a legal right to demand a reconsideration, but the door is open to make a reasoned case.

The primary assumption that underpins self-financing is that there would be certainty over income and that rents would increase at least with inflation each year.  However for wider political reasons, George Osborne imposed a 1% per year rent cut for four years, wrecking newly written Housing Revenue Account business plans.

The Grenfell tragedy has raised the profile of fire and building safety, with legislation on its way requiring councils to undertake billions of pounds of work that no one envisaged when preparing their business plans. Also, not written into business plans is the steep acceleration on spending required to decarbonise council housing as a response to the climate emergency.

Councils are now committed to tackling damp and have accepted that a tenant’s lifestyle cannot be used as a reason to avoid responsibility. Damp is an issue for some tenants on the Longfield estate, as the estate is single brick, rather than the more modern cavity wall, with insulation.

Some councils experienced a significant dip in rent and leaseholder income during the pandemic, particularly as there was a moratorium on taking legal action against tenants in arrears. This problem will outlast lockdown, as the county court system has collapsed, meaning that legal action to recover outstanding debts will take years.

It was optimistically hoped that Housing Revenue Account surpluses could contribute towards the cost of building new council homes. However, building costs have spiralled. There is also an equity issue about whether council tenants, on lower than the local average income, should be paying for tackling the societal problems of climate change and homelessness. Even if the outstanding debt disappears councils will still need significant government capital funding to start to address 40 years of underfunding.

Unsurprisingly, the self-financing settlement is imploding.  Wicks reports that the council housing debt bill was virtually unchanged at £25.95bn in 2019/20. One part of the explanation is that councils have to start by paying off the interest before they can start to reduce the principal.  Additionally there is the irony of councils saddled with debt being forced to borrow more to meet their commitments. At least one council with a high starting debt and huge safety requirements has agreed the deferment of debt payments with the Government.

There is the possibility that the historic debt on council housing will become a version of the student loan debt, whereby the Government accepts that the debt cannot be paid back, but it stays on the balance sheet as an asset. Whilst delaying debt repayments provides short-term relief, the problem with this approach is that councils will need to hold sufficient reserves in their Housing Revenue Accounts to pay the government the back-payments if they are demanded. This means that council housing will continue to be denied the investment it needs.

What our investigation has revealed is that residents on the Longfield estate, along with most other tenants are not getting the modernization that council tenants collectively have paid for. This issue is disguised because in much of the country council rents are substantially below private rents. Council rents are sub-market, but this is because they much more closely reflect the actual cost of providing and managing housing. Market rents are high because a substantial profit is being made.

Wicks was instrumental in the drafting of the housing motion passed at the Labour Party’s 2021 conference. Attention has been focused on the commitment to build 100,000 new council houses per year. However another important clause in the motion referred to the need to maintain the council housing we already have and specifically to ‘review council housing debt to address the underfunding of the Housing Revenue Account’.

Wicks makes the case that the ‘bogus debt’ should be written off. This is not as outlandish as it may seem. To put the £26bn debt into context, housing expert, Anna Minton, writing in the Financial times on 21.1.22, estimates that the cost of quantitative easing in the 7 years after 2008 was £445bn and the cost of emergency pandemic relief was £455bn. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is estimated to have written off £4.3bn furlough and other business relief payments that were fraudulently claimed. Writing off a bogus debt of £26bn no longer seems such a big ask.

Whilst council housing financing remains so opaque and unfair, the residents of Longfield estate know that they are getting a bad deal, without knowing why.

Andy Bates
Andy Bates

Andy Bates is an Executive Member of the Labour Housing Group.