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How does planning perpetuate generational inequality?

In part one of this three part blog contribution we hear from inside the tent to what extent our planning system is truly representative and democratic. Or whether hyper-local Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) opposition perpetuates the generational inequality we should all oppose.

It was early in the evening when I realised things were not going as I had planned. You could cut the tension with a knife. I started to tot-up how I thought the votes would go; for, for, against, against, don’t know, I…don’t know. 

I swivel my chair to turn away from the public gallery. There’s nothing worse than catching the eye of someone giving you the stare. ‘These people must hate me’, I think to myself, ‘they must think we are faceless droids, nodding through applications without a care in the world’. 

But tonight we’re not nodding through an application, we’re on the verge of blocking 63 new homes. 

I am sitting in Lewisham Council’s planning committee. On a usual night, I would sit in faint bemusement as colleagues act out a charade — we ask for clarification, we look again at that the cross-sections, we offer apologetic looks to objectors and we firmly ask our officers to make sure all planning conditions are enforced. It is a charade because we know the application is policy compliant before the night begins. The material grounds for refusal may be as flimsy as renters’ rights, but “we’re gathered here tonight” because 5 or more people have complained about an application’s impact on their backyard. After the usual impassioned rant on immaterial considerations or a pained lament to our hands being tied, councillor’s will grant planning permission.

But tonight, is different. This application has not only generated considerable opposition, but the application itself has (potentially) solid grounds for refusal. I can see my colleagues getting tetchy. Objectors have been and gone, and as usual, a scatter-gun approach has been utilised. Locked and loaded, we’ve been pummelled with round after round of complaints: this area can’t take any more homes (it can), this will increase parking pressure (most occupants won’t own a car), this site can’t accommodate this many homes (it can). However, two complaints gain traction. 

The development would replace an underutilized plot of land — specifically, a scruffy-looking light industrial estate, and replace it with 63 good quality homes, 20 of which are affordable (14 social, 4 shared-ownership) and a much-needed increase in new business space (an 110% uplift). While it was argued that the application would improve biodiversity across the site, the redevelopment would mean the felling of 38 trees. Moreover, some nearby social housing blocks would experience overlooking from the new flats. At the closest pinch point, the buildings would be 3.8m away from each other, rising to 7.2m away at its furthest. It was acknowledged that for a small number of neighbours, they would no longer be looking out onto trees but at a ‘green wall’ on the side of new flats. 

To me, the choice was clear about the actions we needed to take for the greater good. Over the next 20 years, London will need to build a million new homes. It is a steep task, and that will only be made possible if politicians are brave enough to be straight with the public about our need to densify and be able to communicate the trade-offs we all need to make. 

It is hard to express in words the pain our housing crisis causes, walk down any street in London and you’ll be surrounded by lives touched by it. Most councillors have seen the worst cases, the homeless families trapped for years in bedsit ‘temporary accommodation’, or the damp-infested, unlicensed HMOs we occasionally investigate. But our housing crisis touches even those who are from the outside, ‘comfortable’ — families with steady employment who know that they’re one Discretionary Housing Payment delay away from losing their home; the key workers who can no longer afford to live near their place of work, and the young professionals locked out of homeownership for life — all are transient, cycling through extortionate and insecure properties, priced out of neighbourhoods they briefly called home, simply existing, in a private rented sector not fit for purpose. 

The site of this application was an urban setting, and if London is to densify as needed, we will need to accept properties overlooking each other. While a few flats would have their amenity impacted, were we really going to act for the few and not the many? If we were to block this, how long would site stay underutilised, undeveloped and unviable? Years at least. 

And while we heard from the developer who told us about the quality of the design, the urban greening and green wall. And while officers mentioned our housing targets as they authoritatively flicked through their slides. We never heard from those for whom those targets aren’t just numbers, but chance in life, a future. We never do.

I’ve never once had a homeless family attend a planning committee. I sometimes wonder whether any private renter has ever spoken against an application at one of my committees? It takes time to get involved in the planning system, read papers, submit responses and attend the committee. It means we hear from the time-rich. 

Our case-by-case discretionary planning system encourages people to get involved in the planning process only when a case directly affects them. The system encourages decisions to be based on a hyper-localised impact assessment, based on feedback from a relatively small number of people whose amenity will be negatively impacted. The system allows councillors to be swayed by localised concerns in the febrile heat of a civic hall. In essence, the system offers the ideal conditions for Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) voices to be successful. 

For, for, against, against, for..I think.. oh no, they’re going to vote against! 

Several councillors are pushing hard on the loss of trees and objectors saw their opportunity. They brought up our climate emergency declaration and opined that these majestic trees — not accessible and at the back of an industrial estate, were essential oxygen masks for the area. The fact that old light industrial units were being replaced by energy-efficient new homes and business space was overlooked. More importantly, the fact that densification near transport hubs (like this site) is an important mechanic in encouraging a model shift to more sustainable transport methods, thus improving air quality and lowering carbon emissions long-term, was overlooked. 

Again, the bigger picture was being missed and this isn’t a failure of individual councillors, but something embedded into the design of our planning system. 

Another colleague rose up and said he’d vote against. Gulp, that’s another. For, for, against, against, against. He couldn’t let these homes be built due to its impact on the nearby social housing tenants. He’d listened to the homeowners who said they were not speaking for themselves, but on behalf of others, those less fortunate than themselves and who were hit hardest by this development. 

16 new social homes were not going to be built because a few existing social tenants would now look at a wall of a block, rather than some trees. Again, this is a product of a system that gives councillors selective feedback. We only hear from those set to lose from any given scheme and never those set to gain. 

In the end, I moved to support the officer’s recommendation for approval and the application was granted planning permission via a deciding vote by the Chair. But I was left reeling from what I saw, and my anger would only grow as I read about far larger policy-compliant schemes, being blocked by councillors across London

In writing this piece, I hope to show how and why applications that comply with a local plan can be rejected by your local councillors. I hope to give people an insight into how our planning system’s much-vaunted democracy, tilts the system unfairly towards the well-to-do and perpetuates generational inequality. Despite facing huge housing pressure, we face a system that provides fertile ground for hyper-local opposition to block developments. 

When drafting our local plan, comments from my colleagues often take a broader view, looking at the needs of our borough as a whole. The need for economic growth, densification and regeneration, and the need to tackle housing need and combat gentrification by building more is accepted. These things are then balanced and traded off against ensuring good design, protecting unique heritage, and ensuring manageable density for the area’s infrastructure.

Moving away from our ‘one-shot’ approach to planning engagement is good for democracy. By ‘front-loading’ or ‘up-streaming’ planning consultations, we can help achieve a more representative and democratic planning process. Less time-rich demographics can provide feedback at a single point when it is necessary. All in all, it will mean that planners and politicians will get a more holistic view when drafting their local plans, in an environment that offers them the space to see the bigger picture.

Moreover, the proposed move to a rules-based planning system and away from a discretion-based system is positive. It will mean evenings like I’ve described above, will become a thing of the past. 

Defenders of the status quo remind us that almost 9 in 10 residential planning applications are granted permission at committee-stage. However, this is a form of survivorship bias, ignoring the countless applications for new homes that were never submitted because the risks of being rejected by planning officer or councillors are too great. The issues in our symptom run far deeper than those outlined here. In fact, councillors directly blocking new homes is only the tip of the iceberg.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Leo Gibbons-Plowright</span></strong>
Leo Gibbons-Plowright

Leo is a Labour and Co-Op Party Councillor for Forest Hill in Lewisham.

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Ending rough sleeping needs more than a sticking plaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mind the Construction Skills Gap

There is no hope of a house-building renaissance without first addressing the systemic construction skills gap. But what can we do?

This fetishisation of the academic – at the expense of the vocational – is undermining our ability to build homes. When I was the vice-Chair of a Board of Governors at an all-through school in 2016, Nicky Morgan – then Education Secretary – introduced Progress 8. The basic tenet of Progress 8 is that schools are encouraged to take the most academic subjects. There are too many hairdressers, as the Local Government Association once said.

Instead, Morgan wanted more young people to study English, mathematics, the sciences, geography, history and the languages. Given the measures are included in school performance tables, schools are incentivised to take them – whether they’re the right choices for young people or not.

But what about bricklayers, carpenters, roofers, scaffolders, electricians, painters and decorators? What about the legion of young students – particularly working-class boys in deprived schools like the one I oversaw, who come from chaotic households, detest books, but are good with their hands?

With a vocational college less than a mile from the school I was based in, at the time it was hard to see why we shouldn’t encourage vocational courses. But the system is designed as such you ignore Progress 8 at your peril. A better attainment record – on paper – might encourage prospective parents and pupils to come to the conclusion that our school was the place for them and that has serious funding implications.

In hindsight, perverse incentives like these have, I suspect, wider consequences. Exacerbating skills gaps across our vocations – construction in particular – is a serious barrier a housebuilding renaissance. This is a self-inflicted crisis.  On top of our indifference to the vocational, the centralised skills system, cuts to the Adult Education Budget, and the closure of adult education centres have all meant that the UK plc is increasingly unable to respond to the needs of employers.

In 2018, 44% of small-to-medium housebuilders dubbed the construction skills shortage a major barrier to building more homes – climbing from 27% in 2015 – according to a Federation of Master Builders (FMB) House Builders’ survey. Though concerns over skills shortages fell dramatically the year after for the first time in five years to 26%, the skills gap remained the third greatest barrier to housebuilding, and housebuilders were clear that they expected the issue to get worse before it gets better. Employers were also critical of the work-readiness of our young people. Research by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) in 2018 found that over half (51%) of employers felt that school leavers weren’t prepared for the world of work. Business leaders across the industry have long felt the education system is decoupled from the needs of their businesses.

Without labouring the point, there is also greater uncertainty about the existing supply of construction workers. The non-UK workforce accounts for 14% of the construction industry – and over half (54%) in London – according to CITB. The scale of the exodus of Romanians and Bulgarians – more than half of them leaving the construction industry between 2015 and 2017 – should concern anyone who wants to see more homes built, not less.

The speed needed to tackle the skills shortage is all the greater, given the scale of the industry’s ageing workforce. According to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, 45% of the workforce are over 50, meaning that employers will need a steady stream of employees: 400,000 each year, equivalent to one recruit every 77 seconds.

Clearly the picture is complex and the challenges manifold. While the skills shortages that have receded are likely to be temporary, there is greater uncertainty on the horizon. This is compounded by the general incompetence of a government which has been wholly unable to fix the growing mismatch between the construction industry’s skills demands and a falling number of people gaining construction qualifications.

The introduction of construction T Levels in September 2021 is probably a good start, but the Government has wasted too much time already. The Government allocated £64 million to tackle skills shortages in the digital and construction industries as part of the National Retraining Scheme in 2017. Fast forward to 2020 and the National Retraining Scheme has been incorporated into the £2.5 billion National Skills Fund, yet the talk of construction has been quietly dropped.

The Government long abandoned its promise, as part of its 2015 Conservative Manifesto – and again in 2017 – to deliver 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. In 2018/19 there were 23,000 apprenticeship starts across Construction, Planning and the Built Environment – just 1,000 more than in 2010. A generous reading may make the case that since 2011/12 it has consistently crept up from 14,000 starts, but that would be clutching at straws since it plummeted by 8,000 the year before.

As a result of reform to the apprenticeship system, there has been a sharp increase in the number of providers but it has made little dent in the number of apprenticeship starts. There are several conclusions – and solutions – we can tentatively draw from these facts. The overriding reading of the evidence is that the UK doesn’t have the skills to build its way out of the housing crisis. How do you scale up housebuilding if you don’t have the workforce available to do the work?

The challenge requires a cross-departmental approach on issues ranging from immigration, skills and apprenticeships, the curriculum, and the role of business and further and higher education. I suspect neither the Department for Education (DfE) nor the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has paid due attention to the chronic skills shortages in construction – partly because the DfE has designed in vocational snobbery.

That the Government done away with the Skills Minister in June 2019 and a replacement was only found in February 2020 does nothing to dispel the accusation. As we look ahead to the national recovery, the Government has a real opportunity to transform how we design and deliver skills training. Those decisions mustn’t be made in the corridors of Whitehall – they must be made collaboratively, with employers, councils, education providers, and they must be aligned with local economic strategies.

There must be a greater focus on attracting talent at home too. Without attracting new entrants to the sector and upskilling the existing workforce, the Government’s target of building 300,000 homes each year by the mid-2020s will remain out of reach.

The Government must also get more construction apprenticeships on board – and quickly. It must forge a narrative which doesn’t fetishise the academic over the vocational, and in doing so must encourage women and ethnic minorities to shatter the glass ceilings that exist in an otherwise male, principally white, industry. The failure to address construction skills gaps now will see the new homes, schools and hospitals needed for future generations unbuilt.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Jack Shaw</span></strong>
Jack Shaw

Jack is a Senior Policy Researcher for a Labour MP, has previously worked for the Local Government Association, and is a member of the London Labour Housing Group Executive Committee.

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Shared Ownership: why we deserve far greater transparency

Glossy ads present a rosy picture of shared ownership. But some first-time buyers are discovering the reality doesn’t live up to the rhetoric. Why are shared owners demanding greater transparency from housing associations and the National Housing Federation? This article breaks down some home truths about shared ownership, and what one housing campaigner is doing about it.

Shared ownership isn’t shared and it isn’t ownership. It’s arguable to what degree it constitutes affordable housing. Yet housing associations market this complex tenure with the same degree of levity with which a company might sell, say, comic books or whoopee cushions. The National Housing Federation (Nat Fed) marketing campaign promotes shared ownership schemes with slogans including: ‘Painting every wall luminous green’ and ‘Cooking in your pants on Sundays’.

My younger self would have enjoyed the jocular tone of Nat Fed advertising. My older self thinks the campaign does home buyers a great dis-service by failing to live up to laudable claims of ‘myth busting’ and ‘explaining what shared ownership means’. Taking out a mortgage could be one of the most expensive decisions first-time buyers will ever make. And, if they get it wrong, the consequences can be catastrophic.

An advertorial published during Shared Ownership Week 2020 included a quote from first-time buyer, Laura: “I think a lot of people don’t understand it, they think there’s a catch. There isn’t.” And there’s the problem in a nutshell… It’s perhaps a moot point exactly what constitutes a ‘catch’ but there’s no shortage of possibilities.

For a start, shared owners are often surprised to discover they don’t ‘own’ their home in any meaningful sense. The ‘part buy, part rent’ slogan is widely used in promoting shared ownership. But legal experts suggest that such terminology is potentially misleading as it misrepresents the legal form of the tenure. One law firm, Walker Morris (in a 2017 article ‘Shared Ownership: Risks and Rewards for Lenders’) say: ‘It is incorrect, and therefore misleading and potentially an offence in contravention of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (2008) for housing associations, landlords, developers or lenders to advertise or refer to shared ownership schemes as ‘part buy, part rent’, or indeed by using any other terminology or slogan which suggests that the customer purchases anything other than an assured tenancy leasehold interest at any time prior to the 100% staircasing stage’.

The Nat Fed campaign appears to confuse a marketing strategy (defining ‘it’s yours’ as ‘not sharing’) with the legal reality (it’s not ‘yours’ and there are therefore risks of forfeiture, possession, and loss of or reduction in equity).

Shared ownership isn’t even that good an investment. The Homes England model contract specified a minimum lease length of 99 years for flats up until 2016, and 125 years thereafter. Shared owners have been shocked to discover a need for expensive lease extensions with no benefit other than to maintain the market value of their home. And, of course, some simply can’t afford to do so, and find themselves in possession of a devaluing asset. The London Mayor recently addressed this issue by unveiling a plan to ensure all shared ownership homes built in the capital as part of the new Affordable Homes Programme are sold with a 999-year lease as standard. But this doesn’t address problems faced outside London and also by legacy owners, many stranded with an increasingly unsuitable and undesirable housing product.

It gets worse. Shared owners have no statutory right to lease extension unless they’ve staircased to 100%. I contacted Mike Shone, Homes England’s Monitoring and Reporting Manager, in 2019 to ask what percentage of shared owners achieve full staircasing. The response: ‘Unfortunately this is not something that is recorded by Homes England or the Regulator of Social Housing’. But Parliamentary Research briefing CBP-8828 reports: ‘The increasing costs of shared ownership have made it more challenging for households to progress to full ownership. Around 4,000 households staircased to 100% ownership in 2018/19, equivalent to 2.3% of all shared-equity homes owned by housing associations’.

What about much vaunted affordability claims? These appear reliant on comparison with private rental or open market purchases over a relatively short timescale. They don’t factor in whole life cycle costs such as lease extension; rents that increase annually regardless of whether average market rents are increasing, static, or even declining; and full 100% liability for service and management charges regardless of the % share purchased. (Fire safety remediation costs are too complex to go into here but are self-evidently a source of huge emotional and financial distress for affected shared owners).

Housing sector professionals appear to believe that lawyers should provide information on such issues. Wanda Goldvag, chair of the Leasehold Advisory Service (LEASE), interviewed on Radio 4’s consumer affairs programme You and Yours in January 2019 said: “lawyers have an absolute duty to explain complex clauses to people”.

But it’s hard to understand such reliance on lawyers. Research funded by the Leverhulme Trust (Exploring experiences of shared ownership, 2015) found that: ‘Modern conveyancing practice is not equipped to provide information to buyers about the specifics of shared ownership leases. […] That increases the onus on providers to provide relevant, simple and clear information to buyers’.

Shared ownership is pitched as the ‘affordable’ route into housing. Marketing rhetoric implies that ALL buyers benefit from shared ownership as a ‘step onto the housing ladder’. But this is over-simplistic and fails to recognise that the wider housing market creates both winners and losers.

Moreover, a rapidly rising property market will benefit buyers who interpret ‘a step onto the housing ladder’ as obtaining a first property as an investment generating a gain to help buy their next property, but will disadvantage buyers who interpret it as an opportunity to purchase their forever home in staircasing instalments (the original intention of the scheme per the 1979 Conservative election manifesto). And the converse is equally true.

Whilst risks and opportunities arising from property markets are clearly not restricted to first-time buyers purchasing shared ownership homes, this demographic is particularly vulnerable to financial difficulties and poor outcomes arising from inadequate information and advice.

Housing associations have a dilemma; too much transparency could compromise achievement of sales targets. It’s pragmatic to assume housing associations will continue to place emphasis on short-term benefits to shift units. And, unless there are fundamental changes to the shared ownership model, many shared owners will continue to discover that shared ownership isn’t anywhere near as affordable as those glossy ads suggest.

Could the shared ownership model be improved? Could it be made more affordable? To some degree perhaps… A sector-wide commitment to cease taking advantage of the 2019 Zucconi precedent (a discretionary change in the method for calculating leasehold extension premiums which creates a windfall for housing associations, but pushes lease extension even further out of reach for many shared owners) would help some. Widespread adoption of the London Mayor’s proposal for 999-year leases as standard would render lease extension costs obsolete (except for increasingly disadvantaged legacy owners, of course!).

But here’s the rub… housing associations’ overall funding model has historically depended in part on profits arising from shared ownership schemes (for example, the receipts from staircasing shares sold at current market value rather than original market value) to generate cross-subsidy for social rented homes. So the financial interests of individual shared owners are directly in conflict with the wider objectives of housing associations. Shared owners are discovering they are, in many respects, the benefactors of affordable housing rather than the recipients they thought they were. It’s complicated!

If I had to choose one key policy reform…? “To stop using the term affordable for housing that isn’t” (a phrase I’ve stolen from Tom Murtha). To stop using the term ‘shared’ for housing that isn’t. And to stop using the term ‘ownership’ for housing that isn’t. Though that may not happen anytime soon. First-time buyers, shared owners and leaseholders deserve better. Which is why I’ve created a Crowdfunder project to raise funds for an independent shared ownership website with comprehensive information, analysis, and signposting to sources of professional expertise and advice. The Crowdfunder ends at 2.52pm on 9th February 2021.

Click here: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/shared-ownership-resources

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Sue Phillips</span></strong>
Sue Phillips

Sue Phillips is an accountant (ACCA) who spent much of her career working in the not-for-profit sector. She is now semi-retired. She says she never expected to become a housing campaigner! 

She purchased her own flat via a shared ownership scheme in 1999, staircased to 100% in 2013, and completed a lease extension in 2020.

Her own experience of shared ownership led her to start campaigning in 2019, with a particular focus on greater transparency on potential long-term costs and risks of shared ownership. She campaigns under the moniker Shared Ownership Resources.

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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

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First Homes should be affordable to local median earners

As many commentators had predicted, a concerted lobbying campaign by many local authorities and members of parliament has led to the first signs of a softening of the government’s wider reform of the planning system. It seems that ministers are firmly in listening mode, as they are starting with a review of perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the reforms – the revised housing targets for each individual planning authority.

The “housing algorithm issue” has tended to dominate the broader debate about the proposals, but it is only one of a wider series of concerns that ministers need to consider when assessing what further amendments they need to make.

Our greatest policy concern is the issue of First Homes and the potential effect that focusing on homes created by this policy would have on the delivery of other affordable housing. In high-value areas, such as inner London, even at discounts approaching 50%, they will remain out of reach for most of those for whom they are intended. Furthermore, prioritising them over other forms of affordable tenure will result in a loss of social rented and other genuinely affordable homes, which are required to meet London’s housing need.

Our response is not one of outright opposition to the policy, as it offers a viable way to expand homeownership opportunities in many parts of the country. However, the policy is unworkable in very high-value areas due to affordability, so we suggest a potential exemption from the policy in these areas.

That exemption should be based on an “affordability lock” – First Homes should be affordable to local median earners. This would effectively mean that they would not be the default affordable housing delivered unless, say, they were affordable to 80% of local household incomes and where it can therefore be shown that they meet local housing need.

If First Homes do not meet these criteria, the locality should be exempt from having to deliver them and should instead deliver other forms of tenure that are affordable to local median earners. This would cover the entirety of the inner London market, given the underlying high residential values.

In high-value areas such as inner London, shared ownership is already unaffordable and First Homes will have the same issue, while traditional social housing is in short supply and available only to those in acute housing need. In such locations, intermediate market rent should be the principal affordable housing tenure delivered to support median earners. These intermediate homes can provide a steppingstone into homeownership, low-cost or otherwise.

So, while it is clear that for the government the issues relating to their proposals are all about the numbers, we have to be equally clear that it is also about the type and tenure of the homes provided, not just how many and where.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Olivia Harris</span></strong>
Olivia Harris

Olivia has been appointed Chief Executive of Dolphin Living since April 2017. Previously, Olivia was Finance Director at Dolphin Living, providing financial and commercial oversight on a wide range of property and related projects, including debt and fund raising.

Olivia is a Chartered Accountant and has worked for more than 15 years in the property industry and is Chair of the Westminster Property Association.

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When it comes to building homes – planning isn’t the problem

As we enter 2021 there is no doubt that Britain is facing a housing crisis ─ a crisis of supply, demand, affordability and quality. Sadly, like an unwelcome ghost at the feast, all the Government seemed to be offering us last Christmas is reheated policy ideas, gone-off planning reform, regifted funding and a long hangover after a decade of austerity and welfare cuts.

In Hackney, where I am the Labour & Co-operative directly elected Mayor, house prices have risen by 71% in the last five years. Nationally, homelessness temporary accommodation (TA) placements have risen by 71% since 2010 and 80% of those in TA in Hackney are now estimated to be in work. And ‘permitted development rights’ have allowed landlords to turn former office blocks into homes without planning permission, leading to poor quality, rabbit-hutch homes ─ too often leading to private profit from the homelessness crisis.

It is a multifaceted crisis that the Tories think will be solved very simply ─ by reforming the planning system. Their latest White Paper, entitled Planning for the Future, sets out proposals to supposedly help increase the number of homes built every year, but will end up causing longer-term problems. Recently announced (and welcome) changes to the proposed new planning formula for house building will not undo the damage the rest of the proposals could bring about.

First, the proposals suggest scrapping local planning policies currently co-produced between councils and their communities. Local Plans and policies will be replaced by ‘national guidance’ that often just sets out the bare minimum level of standards that local people have rightly come to expect from developments ─ standards on affordability, sustainability and infrastructure.

Next, the Tories want to create a simpler zoning system, designating areas across England into three new categories: ‘growth’, ‘renewal’ and ‘protection’ areas. Importantly, ‘growth’ areas will give developers automatic planning permission to build, so long as they meet the national standards. Imagine the current permitted development rights on steroids.

These proposals are severely undemocratic ─ they will transfer power and responsibility away from local councils to Ministers and Whitehall Civil Servants, who will be able to set standards and zones in areas they have no knowledge of.

Automatic planning permission will mean local communities and councils will lose the one opportunity they have to assess and comment on developments in their areas. The scrapping of Local Plans will also mean local people will lose the chance to shape policy in their areas. This also risks that policies like Hackney’s new Child Friendly Places SPD or our commitments to green infrastructure and genuinely affordable workspace could be sidelined.

On infrastructure, the Government is suggesting ‘streamlining’ the current developer taxes into a single ‘Infrastructure Levy’. At the same time, the Government will introduce a mandatory 20% target for their new ‘affordable First Homes’, which is really just homes subsidised market-rate homes. This will hamper the already difficult negotiations the councils have to go through to push developers to provide genuinely affordable homes.

The Government also wants to implement the principles of biodiversity net-gain in the planning system, as well as a ‘biodiversity credits’ system to tax developers where they fail to meet net-gain targets. It’s a sound principle, but at the moment the credits will be paid straight to central government, and not the communities which will be impacted by the development.

At the same time, if councils lose the lever of our current planning system ─ being able to set local biodiversity policies and assess developments before they are built ─ it is unclear how the Government expects to achieve their principles. The risk is developers in ‘growth’ areas will use credits as a quick ‘get out of jail free’ card to simply pay a tax without contributing to nature recovery or biodiversity conservation which local people could benefit from. As I recently said in Parliament these conflicting policy objectives hardly feel joined up.

We know how important local green infrastructure is to local communities, particularly to those without a private outdoor space. If we didn’t, the coronavirus pandemic provided a valuable reminder. We also know the current planning system is better at achieving green space than no system at all ─ just 3.5% of new homes created through permitted development rights included access to private outdoor space, compared with 23.1% of homes delivered via planning permission.

And lastly there is the idea that these plans will increase supply; the Tory narrative is that really, it is a cumbersome planning process that is stopping homes being built. Well, in Hackney, 90% of residential planning applications submitted to the Council have been approved since 2010, but 25% of them have not been built. That is over 2,000 approved homes in Hackney that have not been built by developers, who are instead sitting on land in the Borough.

So at every turn, these plans will fail. They will not increase supply; they will reduce the amount of affordable housing; they will water down design and quality standards; and they will not tackle the biggest area of demand ─ social housing. Any planning authority, Labour or Conservative controlled, will tell you that when it comes to building homes, planning isn’t the problem.

Clearly, the private market alone will not meet the Tories ambition to see 300,000 homes built a year by the middle of this decade. This will be compounded by the economic shocks of coronavirus and Brexit. Ideology stops the Tories from seeing the clear practical contribution that large scale countercycle investment in green, social rented homes could bring across the UK and to communities like Hackney.

Building council homes is a pro-industry response. All the lessons from the previous recessions show that without council house-building, we will see a contraction of the construction industry, fewer small businesses, deskilled and unemployed workers and reduced competition ─ all resulting in fewer homes of all tenures being built.

Labour knows that when the market isn’t delivering for people, the Government must step in. Labour councils know that what we really need is a new generation of ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’.

The council-house building agenda in this country started after the First World War to house returning soldiers in affordable and high-quality homes, and we only marked that anniversary last year. Now we need homes fit for our heroes on the frontline of fighting the war against coronavirus.

The planning reforms might yet be another Dominic Cummings pet project that, now he has ungraciously left the building, may be dropped or watered down. But the Labour movement can’t take the chance of these proposals getting rushed through a Tory-majority Parliament.

If we believe in building genuinely affordable homes, with decent standards and built in sustainable communities that get a real say on development in their areas, the Labour movement must unite again to fight against these plans at every step of the way ─ and then fight for a return to mass council house building again.

<img class="wp-block-coblocks-author__avatar-img" src="https://secureservercdn.net/160.153.138.71/pb4.705.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Philip-Glanville.jpg" alt="<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Mayor Philip Glanville</span>
Mayor Philip Glanville

Since 2016 Philip has been the Labour and Cooperative directly elected Mayor of Hackney, the borough’s second directly elected Mayor. He was re-elected in May 2018.

He was previously a councillor in Hoxton for ten years, and spent three years as Cabinet Member for Housing.

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Beyond Short-Termism: How to Fix the Covid-19 Renters Crisis

Resolution Foundation report demonstrates the inadequacy of the Government’s response to the renters crisis – it must go beyond its own short-termism, writes Jack Shaw.

In March the Government said that this pandemic was an opportunity to end rough sleeping for good. New research by the Resolution Foundation has made it clear that that won’t be the case unless the Government is willing to put protecting renters and tackling homelessness at the top of its domestic agenda – and it can only do so by legislating. 

At the end of October the Resolution Foundation published its report Coping with Housing Costs, Six Months On, based on a survey in September of 6,000 working-age adults across the country. This follows the same survey carried out in May, and provides a unique opportunity to view the pandemic through the lens of housing.  The findings are stark, if not all too familiar.

The basic tenet is that the safety net put in place at the beginning of the pandemic for private and social renters, as well as homeowners with mortgages, falls short of the support required to keep people from losing their homes. 

Comparisons between tenures show that, across multiple indices, renters are hit harder. Compared to homeowners with mortgages, renters – social and private – are more likely to have lost their job or been furloughed; be in arrears; cut back on other items, dip into savings or borrow to cover housing costs; be in receipt of Housing Benefit and Universal Credit; and be less certain about where they’re going to live in 12 months’ time.

Over time the need for homeowners with mortgages to draw on mortgage holidays has fallen, while their job certainty appears to have increased – only three per cent of people with mortgages reported job losses, compared with eight per cent in the private rented sector and seven per cent in the social rented sector respectively. 

It does not appear that the need for housing support for renters has receded as much as we had hoped over the same period. Fewer renters reported being on furlough in September compared to May – perhaps because some have returned to work – but more reported losing their job.

Likewise, the number of renters seeking – and being refused – rent reductions has remained relatively stable at around one in 20. The picture is nuanced, but there are several conclusions that can be drawn.  

First, the blow to households with mortgages has been softer during this pandemic. Second, not only have renters been hit harder, but they have also recovered more slowly. Third, the interventions put in place by the Government aren’t sufficient. At best, they delay homelessness, not prevent it. True, renters have benefitted from a ban on evictions, and an uplift in Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates and Universal Credit (UC), but none of these are long-lasting.

The LHA rate rise itself follows a capricious rate freeze by the Government in 2016, which decoupled it from inflation. What that means is as inflation rises, LHA rates do not rise with it. This gives renters access to fewer and fewer properties, which has undoubtedly undermined the resilience of private renters who benefit from LHA during this pandemic. 

The uplift essentially returns LHA rates to pre-2016 levels, although in another blow the Spending Review has since revealed that LHA rates will be frozen in cash terms from next year – so rates will once again fall back below 30th percentile over time, pushing renters back to square one just as they’re running out of cash. The ban on evictions has already ended, and the UC uplift is due to end in April.

As the Government battles on every front – COVID, saving the economy, protecting public health, Brexit, a credible Opposition – I suspect the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions’ latest words in Parliament are more than a Freudian slip: they were by design.

On 30 November, when asked whether she would make the Universal Credit uplift permanent, Dr Thérèse Coffey pointed out to Parliament that “we can also make the effort to encourage people to go for vacancies.” With the number of vacancies down 35% this time last year notwithstanding, such nonsense in the face of evidence-based interventions that will support renters to hold onto their tenancy is the epitome of absurdity.

But do not take my word for it. Modelling by the Joseph Rowntree highlighted that up to 16 million people across several million households are at risk of losing the equivalent to £1,040 overnight if the UC uplift ends in April, a kick in the teeth for the lowest income families just as they’re recovering from the pandemic. Research from Shelter earlier this year also revealed that 322,000 renters were in arrears despite keeping up with their rent before the pandemic began. With landlords handing out notices of repossession, we are only months away from understanding the full impact inadequate support has had on renters.

So, where does that leave us? Above all, it leaves us angry – or at least it should do. As to where it leads us: to the Government’s front door. The safety net is holding – just – in the face of the pandemic. While it cannot be the solution for renters forever, for now it’s making a global pandemic more bearable.

Though the Government cannot even get short-termism right, it already needs to look long-term too, and that starts with taking control over the domestic agenda and legislating as it has promised. Ministers need to get on with the job and abolish Section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act – so called ‘no fault’ evictions which allow landlords to evict tenants without good reason – over 18 months since the promise was made.

The Government also needs to bring forward the Renters Reform Bill, which no doubt should have precedence over some of the smaller items on the legislative agenda, such as the licensing of jet skis last month. If, as the Bill says, its aim is to improve the “security for tenants in the rental sector, delivering greater protection for tenants and empowering them to hold their landlord to account”, then surely the best time is now, before that security all but evaporates?

The cost of renting has long outstripped people’s ability to pay rent. The Government should strengthen and lengthen interventions to support those most in need, but it should also abandon its short-termism and support existing interventions with legislation that looks toward the long-term. A failure to do so will force more renters out of secure, permanent accommodation, and into temporary bed and breakfasts.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Jack Shaw</span></strong>
Jack Shaw

Jack is a Senior Policy Researcher for a Labour MP, has previously worked for the Local Government Association, and is a member of the London Labour Housing Group Executive Committee.

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Will a new planning system magically create new housing?

Labour would make a great mistake if they think that the disquiet in the Tory shires about the Government’s proposed planning reforms – or the departure of Dominic Cummings – will sink the Planning White Paper.  Johnson has come out plainly saying he wants abolition of the present planning system, come what may – and we have to understand why so much political capital is invested in this.

Developers and landowners have made massive profits over the last 40 years.  Indeed the economy is largely built on this speculative success. So why get rid of something that works for them so well?  What exactly is the Government’s agenda, and what is Labour’s answer? 

The White Paper ‘Planning for the Future’, proposes not reform of the current system but total abolition of existing town and country planning legislation.  The replacement would be a US style ‘zoning system’ accompanied by high tech design codes.  Thus, if developers can tick the boxes on the zones and codes they get automatic consent.  Bingo. Communities and local councils are by-passed.

No more planning applications to be submitted and poured over by pesky planners and local communities – the landowners and housebuilders are free at last.  At least that is their dream – but things are more complicated than that, and the Tory record with planning makes them highly vulnerable to close examination.

The premise of the White Paper is that the housing crisis is caused by planners putting obstacles in the path of housebuilding companies and that a new planning system will remove these obstacles and magically there will be more housing – a view fuelled by the housebuilders lobby, the Home Builders Federation.  This part of the Government’s rationale does not stack up. The facts are that housebuilders have planning consents for 1 million homes and have not built them out.   To do so would bring down house prices and that is the last thing investors want.  The truth is that there is no evidence that the proposed reforms will deliver more homes.    

The reality is that the White Paper proposals are a tangled mess, and largely unworkable as explained in recent essays by a group of planning academics (including myself), ‘The Right Answers to the Right Questions’, ed. Andy Inch, 2020.  Nor are they what the volume housebuilders have been asking for.  They have been lobbying for measures to speed up planning decisions and make more housing land available, but they have not asked for legislation that is so wide ranging it may disrupt their highly profitable business model.

The White Paper proposals requiring councils to replace existing Local Plans with zones of Growth, Renewal, and Protect, plus algorithms for housing supply targets, and design codes – many dictated from Whitehall – are complicated and contentious to deliver in most urban areas and could engender even more NIMBYism and public cynicism.  The Tory shires are already voicing concerns about ‘Growth Zones’ and housing targets being imposed on their villages.     

So what lies behind the Tory aim of deleting current planning legislation?  It is ideology. The UK planning system is one of three remaining pillars of the post-war settlement, the others being the BBC and the NHS.  The Tories and their think-tanks have always regarded these pillars as ‘socialist’, or ‘welfare state’ measures. 

Town planning was enshrined in the foundational 1947 Town and Country Planning Act which was in its original purpose a socially redistributive mechanism to regulate development and distribute the profits from land development in a fair way – alongside providing a democratic framework for rebuilding towns and cities after the war. It was a force for good aimed at benefitting all classes and all regions.  Over years these principles were watered down but the essence of 1947 Act remains in all the succeeding planning legislation.  

The ideological Tories are not defensive about this intention, but where they are vulnerable is their collusion with the vested interests that have taken control of the planning system.   The landowners, developers and financiers who are the bedrock of funding and politics of the Tory Party have huge influence over the development of land and have creamed off the massive increase in land value created by the planning system.  

They are supported by a formidable property lobby that has been absorbed into Whitehall’s machinery. They do not intend to give up this privilege.  Communities, local councils and housing campaigns have become increasingly sidelined in the face of these interests, so well illustrated by Robert Jenrick’s shady dealings with a major developer and Tory donor  in the Isle of Dogs, and Boris Johnson’s blatant favours to developers when Mayor of London.  Meanwhile volume housebuilding has been commandeered by a small number of large developers who limit supply to keep up prices.   

Labour should be demanding full transparency and an end to housebuild cartels and cronyism.  If we have done our homework, this attack will have wide support.  The other part of our challenge is to be entirely positive about planning – placing it at the centre of a socially and economically just vision for the country.   Planning must be returned to public service, acting positively to care for the health of the people and the planet, to capture more land value for the community, and to widen planning democracy.

  

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>Bob Colenutt</strong></span>
Bob Colenutt

Bob Colenutt is a member of Oxford Labour Party, a member of the Highbury Group, and author of ‘The Property Lobby’, published by Policy Press, 2020

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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.