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What does the Queens Speech mean for housing?

Despite presenting a large volume of legislation, overall the policy proposals in the Queens 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, regulation of the private rented sector and is campaigning for housing to become 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 and 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 and 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 abolishing 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 of 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 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 housing supply and communities let’s 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.

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The cost of living is rising, so why won’t we talk about housing?

This week saw the cost of living crisis begin to bite. With the energy price cap increasing by £693 from April and the Bank of England predicting that inflation will peak at over 7 per cent, households will face huge financial pressures in the months to come. Given the situation, why is that no one in Westminster wants to talk about the biggest squeeze on the cost of living, housing?

The housing market has indicated for some time that the cost of living was set to rocket. But politicians and media commentators in Westminster have largely ignored the signs. In fact, you might even be led to believe by the way in which rising house prices are reported in the media that a surging housing market is good for the economy. In the past year alone, housing costs have increased significantly. As well as asking prices for homes being sold on the open market rising, private rents have also surged significantly across the country. The trend looks set to continue this year, with social rents also set to rise by up to 4.1 per cent in April.

Burdensome rents were once considered unique to London and the South East. Now, regions outside London and the South East are recording the biggest increases in rental growth. Major northern cities like Manchester and Leeds are not far behind London’s rental growth rebound. While renters in London continue to spend more of their income on rent than others, there are worrying signs that more people in more places will begin to spend over a third of their income on rent alone. In terms of those looking to buy their own home, the picture isn’t much better, with annual house prices rising by over 9 per cent.

Given that housing costs are the biggest single expense for most households, you would think as the cost of living crisis bites, a plan to control house prices and stabilise rents would be top of the political agenda. Instead, runaway housing costs are completely absent from the debate in Westminster.

Politicians have taken for granted that a surging housing market is seen as a measure of a booming economy, but this increasingly isn’t true. Very few people benefit from rising house prices. According to the English Housing Survey, roughly one third of people own their own home outright. Another third of people have a mortgage. This means that surging prices require further borrowing to upsize, with any equity gains only really being realised when a household downsizes. For the other third of the population who rent privately or via social housing, rising prices simply make homeownership an even more distant prospect.

Given that for that majority of the population, housing is the single biggest squeeze on their income, it’s about time politicians started talking about housing in relation to the current cost of living crisis. In terms of tackling it, politicians need to come together to challenge the prevailing narrative on housing. Instead of celebrating surging house prices, they need call it what it is, house price inflation. Being honest with the public and explaining exactly how the country’s runaway housing market will impact them should be a political imperative. This would be a step in the right direction and would help people understand that rampant house prices are unlikely to benefit them or their families in the long-run.

As part of this new narrative, it’s also crucial we finally acknowledge the relationship between high house prices and the low supply of new homes. There’s both an absolute shortage of homes and a distribution problem. This means we are neither building enough homes in England, and we do not have the right policies to create more sustainable credit conditions to ensure fair access to housing for people on all incomes. 

The timing is ripe for us to reframe how we talk about housing in this country. The current moment must be used as an opportunity to forge a new progressive vision for housing focussed on supply, quality and affordability. Our politicians must be brave enough to realise this vision, both to tackle the immediate crisis and secure long-term prosperity and housing stability for millions of people across the country.

J<strong>onathan Webb</strong>
Jonathan Webb

Jonathan Webb is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North.

He tweets @jrkwebb

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Let’s Improve Planning, Let’s Abolish It!

I’m the managing director of Positive Homes. Since 2016 we’ve developed five little sites – the last of which won ‘Development of the Year’ at the 2021 Offsite Awards. Everything we’ve done is one version or another of ‘modern methods of construction’ (MMC), and highly energy efficient.

So Red Brick said, how about 1,200 words on what it’s like to be a (new-ish) small housing developer. Well, blimey. Where to start?

How about small developers built a quarter of new homes in the late 1980s. Now it’s 1 in 12. And SME developers always have higher per unit costs. Even worse: At least 99% of all the new homes built since at least 2008 are obsolete the moment their buyers first step over the threshold. That’s because only 1% of new homes are ‘A’ rated for energy efficiency (including all of ours).And ‘A’ is the least they need to be, to avoid a hefty retrofit bill to make homes ‘net zero’ carbon.

Both of these facts are the inevitable consequence of a dysfunctional planning system, that has created an oligopoly of large companies. Hardly a surprise that 94% of small developers say planning is their biggest problem. Why? Because the system makes something not scarce at all (land) into something beyond valuable, by restricting its supply.

Some more facts: According to Savills, we consistently lose around 26,000 hectares of agricultural land a year. Which sounds like a lot – except we have more than 18 MILLION hectares of farmland, and only 6% of the country is actually built on. So we aren’t running out of land any time in, oh, the next several centuries!

Land use is a choice. But it’s a choice we aren’t allowed to make as a society, because it’s been hived off to a group of anonymous, over-powerful ‘planners’. The public are treated like patronised children, being told what’s good for them. Hardly surprising then, that people act accordingly and kick off when it feels like things are being done to them, not with them. There are people from across the political spectrum fighting to stop new homes. We call them NIMBYs, rather patronisingly. But surely these are just reasonable people not liking the concreting over of the precious countryside?

What a mess. So now for the seemingly counterintuitive leap: The best way to get better results – that benefit the whole community – is to abolish the planning system as we know it. Huh?

We need more affordable homes (of all tenures). We need better built, more energy efficient homes. We need better use of existing buildings. We need a resurgence of smaller developers to bring choice to the market and drive innovation. And we need to protect and enhance the environment.

What prevents that happening? Land use restrictions. By preventing the productive use of something we have in vast abundance, we do nothing other than make our society poorer (house price inflation is a mirage). Instead, we would rather blame the big builders for being ‘too successful’, than acknowledge how the current planning system distorts the market. If land is ‘scarce’ and therefore expensive, there’s obviously less money for environmental improvements/ bigger rooms/ better built homes.

So let’s try a different tack: Let’s abolish planning. (Specifically, the post war planning system, and all its evolutions – yes, including the green belt). But wouldn’t scrapping the planning system produce some sort of mass free for all? Actually no –

because there are numerous essential protections and provisions in place that wouldn’t disappear.

First, you need some guiding principles. So how about the Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Article 1, Protection of Property (humour me)*:

“Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.”

Or, in other words if it’s my land, I should have the right to do whatever I want with it – the ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of my property, providing it doesn’t affect my neighbours’ ‘peaceful enjoyment’ of their property.

From that, you can set (the smallest necessary number of) questions which developers need to answer. And if the answers are right, then there’s nothing to stop you getting building.   Or is there? Actually there’s rather a lot. We need answers to questions like:

  1. Could the highway network handle the extra traffic?
  2. Can the local electricity supply cope with the extra demand? (Especially with electric cars and heat pumps coming in etc)
  3. Does the land flood? Could this be overcome?
  4. Can the water supply and sewer systems cope?
  5. Will every home be ‘net zero’ carbon?
  6. What about local school places? The local GP? Biodiversity?

But hang on – it can’t just be as simple and easy as that can it? If I can successfully answer everything positively, then I can just build? No site identification in the takes-forever-local-plan? No months and years spent on a subsequent, expensive application process? Yes, it really is that simple, with one condition – that additional question I mentioned: 

7. ‘Does the scheme meet the local design code?’

One of former Housing Minister Robert Jenrick’s most interesting reform proposal of 2021 was the idea of local codes, written by residents to recognise what makes their communities great. New housing boss Michael Gove has taken this on by proposing street by street design code referendums.For me, these are a logical extension of neighbourhood plans which, if done right, encourage the voices of the vast majority who don’t get involved in the current system.

Where I live, our village plan process involved a huge number of local people making positive contributions. That included identifying potential sites, along with the type and quality of homes that should be built there. There are now 700 homes under construction, and all the developers embraced the village’s requirements in their designs with minimum fuss.

Is it really so wrong so say we should trust local people to know what’s best for their communities? Most people are capable of weighing up competing priorities to arrive at a sensible, democratic outcome that benefits everyone. Or would we rather continue the ‘who shouts the loudest’ moanathon as the balance to the anonymous planners, who think they know best for your community?

Instead, let’s replace the centralised planning system with….. you and me: Human beings who want the best for their children and their community. Hopelessly optimistic?

Well it happened in Tottenham just recently. The council’s role? To facilitate the development of a design code that local people wanted and needed – and to then get out of the way and let them get on with it. Why wouldn’t you want that where you live too?

(PS: I started writing this when Housing Minister Robert Jenrick was proposing some highly sensible reforms to the planning process. I finished it with Michael Gove fundamentally abandoning the zoning model – while the House of Lords says we need action to support smaller developers and build more homes. And we wonder why nothing ever gets done around here!)

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Martin Valentine</span></strong>
Martin Valentine

Martin is the Managing Director of Positive Homes.

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Let’s take action and act together – the Social Housing Tenants’ Climate Jury

In recent years, many policy-makers have recognised that people need to be put at the heart of decision-making on long-term challenges like social care and climate change. At local, regional and national level, citizens’ juries and assemblies have been instigated to enable ordinary citizens to deliberate and reach conclusions together. Here in the North of England, a first-of-its-kind Social Housing Tenants’ Climate Jury has recently made 19 recommendations to the social housing sector. So why was a Jury needed, what has the process involved, and what have tenants recommended?

A quarter of the North’s carbon emissions come from our existing homes. If we’re to meet the challenge of net zero, that needs to change. That means upgrading homes to make them as energy efficient as possible and transitioning home heating to renewable sources. It’s a huge challenge – we estimate over 4million homes across the North will need energy efficiency works by 2035.

That’s 4million homes, personal spaces, that will require change: the prospect of potentially disruptive works that might mean clearing your loft, having scaffolding around your house, and needing to redecorate afterwards. However considerate the tradespeople are, that’s a prospect most of us wouldn’t relish.

The Northern Housing Consortium’s members – councils, housing associations and ALMOs across the North – told us that the fact that ‘these are people’s homes’ was top of their minds when considering retrofit – they saw meeting the challenge of net zero as much as a tenant engagement issue as an asset management issue.

So we came to the conclusion that tackling climate change in the North’s homes and neighbourhoods needed to start by listening to the people who live in those homes and neighbourhoods – and the Social Housing Tenants’ Climate Jury was born.

Five of our members – First Choice Homes Oldham, Karbon Homes, Salix Homes, Thirteen and Yorkshire Housing – worked with the NHC to bring deliberative democracy to the social housing sector. Shared Future CIC brought their extensive experience of citizens juries and assemblies, and we established an expert Oversight Panel to ensure the independence and integrity of the process.

7,500 tenants across the North were invited to get involved, and from the expressions of interest received, a Jury of 30 tenants was selected, using random stratified selection to ensure they reflected the diversity of the population of tenants across the North, and a range of attitudes to climate change.

The Jury met for 30 hours over the Summer, taking evidence from over 20 expert commentators, to answer the question set for them by the Oversight Panel – ‘How can tenants, social housing providers and others work together to tackle climate change in our homes and neighbourhoods?’  Commentators included academics, technical experts, fellow tenants, housing association representatives and a Government minister.

This was an intensive process. The Jury gave up their time to go on this journey together, and reflected that they had:

Brought together different levels of knowledge, experience and different opinions to create shared understanding and shared solutions in the form of recommendations that we have all worked hard to create and agree upon’.

The recommendations are comprehensive, and cover four themes:

  • Recommendations on retrofit technology
  • Recommendations on costs and managing disruptions to tenants
  • Education, raising awareness, communications and housing association collaboration
  • Tackling climate change in our neighbourhoods.

On technology, tenants concluded that landlords needed to take into account the urgency of climate change: ‘We are running out of time’. The jury wanted landlords to speed things up, whilst keeping an open mind about how technology might develop in future. The quality of installation was very important, and tenants wanted to see the best quality of technology used, with landlords working to ‘optimum standards’, and independent inspection of completed work. Residents recognised that ‘new skills are needed’ and suggested that housing associations should be proactive and look to train and employ their own skilled workforce.

Throughout the Jury’s deliberations, costs were a real concern. Tenants wanted assurances that the huge cost of retrofit wouldn’t push rents up; were keen to ensure that retrofit works delivered on the promise of lower energy bills, and that residents weren’t left footing bills for redecoration. They made practical suggestions – for example, the Jury was concerned that residents might experience fuel poverty as they adjusted to the most efficiency way to use new heating technologies and suggested a pot of money that could help people who found themselves in this situation.

Disruption was a real worry, and the Jury made practical suggestions to minimise this, calling for clear and timely information from their landlords, with named regular contacts who could work with them throughout the process. Tenants asked for clarity about the input that would be required from them – stressing that they can’t take time off work without notice: ‘Full disclosure from both sides, on all matters, will help efficiency, lessen delays and be most cost-effective.’

It was clear that Jurors had learnt lots through the process, and they were keen that awareness was raised with everyone in their communities – so that residents had ‘the information to be able to make their own decisions’. The Jury stressed the importance of good communication, sharing progress and being open about delays and problems. They wanted to see housing associations working together and with councils and other agencies.

Jurors were clear that tackling climate change didn’t end at the front door and made a series of recommendations around the use of green spaces, highlighting the potential for growing food, for collaborating with local businesses like supermarkets; and for showcasing action taken by tenants

This was a hugely inspiring process – and it’s difficult to summarise the breadth of insights and wisdom that the Jury process elicited. Read the Jury’s recommendations, and take the Jury’s advice: ‘Go forward with an open mind, listen to what we have to say and above all – let’s take action and act together’.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Brian Robson</span></strong>
Brian Robson

Brian is the Executive Director (Policy and Public Affairs), Northern Housing Consortium.

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Our failure to plan for rural housing development

Rural housing is one of the most pressing, and contentious, issues facing this country. If Labour is to stage a rural revival then we must confront this issue head on.

In my home constituency of North East Somerset, and across rural England, there is a great distrust around the idea of house building. It is common for people to feel that residents have little to no say over when and where new housing is built and that housing developers are unaccountable. These concerns are not misplaced. For too long we have seen housing developments simply bolted on to towns and villages with little to no thought about the impact these new developments have.

When housing developments are built without infrastructure such as shops, restaurants and healthcare facilities it puts pressure on the existing infrastructure in a town, particularly road infrastructure. Most towns and villages in North East Somerset are simply not equipped to deal with increases in traffic, often due to road size and layout.

When infrastructure is already crumbling under 11 years of Tory misrule these strains can be devastating. But this lack of infrastructure is equally damaging to new residents, a lack of shopping or healthcare provision nearby harms the ability to forge a community spirit in new developments. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated clearly the dangers of isolation and it is incumbent on the Labour Party that our housing strategy acknowledges this.

As a consequence of austerity, rural communities have seen much of their infrastructure disappear. With police stations, fire stations and GP’s being closed in small towns and villages and often converted in to flats. This has increased the distrust around housing developments for many people. But it also contributes to the poor conditions of new housing: as a parish councillor who sits on the planning committee I have seen many examples where buildings are converted in to flats or flats are built.

Often, these flats do not have an appropriate number of parking spaces, which further contributes to the weakening of road infrastructure. If you live in a small town with roads designed in the late 19th and early 20th century, and there are cars parked on the road due to a lack of parking spaces, it can become very difficult to drive around.

We must also face up to the climate crisis. It is not possible, or desirable, to continually build on every field in perpetuity given the environmental consequences. Our green spaces must be protected, not just for the environmental benefit – and biodiversity benefits they provide, but for the mental health benefits the existence of these spaces provide for the people who live near them.

When we do build it must be with a with a long term plan in mind, rather than for the short term financial interests of housing developers. This means, building homes that can last for 100 years – and – envisioning what the community will look like at that point too, including its green spaces. A climate combating housing strategy must also include retrofitting old houses, as we’ve seen championed by our Labour Metro Mayor Dan Norris.

Despite this, there is a need for more housing in North East Somerset. In the towns and villages of my constituency there has long been a strong community spirit. However many people are concerned that children and young people are unable to afford housing in the communities they grew up in – and are forced to move to Bristol and Bath (further contributing to the housing issues faced in those cities) – never to return.

The only way to combat this loss of community, is of course to build more housing in these areas. But this house building must be accompanied by a strategy to assist people in renting and buying their own houses at a reasonable rate. Otherwise for many people the dream of living in the town they grew up in is unreachable.

I believe firmly that there is public support for building the houses we need to combat the crisis we face. But I also believe that more work needs to be done to gain the full confidence of people that under Labour housing will be a benefit to everyone.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Jonathan Wallcroft</span></strong>
Jonathan Wallcroft

Jonathan Wallcroft is a parish councillor in North East Somerset as well as the Secretary of the South West Branch of the Labour Housing Group and a steering group member of Labour Coast & Country.