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Buy a House on Benefits? Why not!

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

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

Labour, Guido Fawkes and Shelter condemn the proposal

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

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

Questions over feasibility and acceptance by the market

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

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

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

But the proposals actually spur on new supply

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

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

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

Global market headwinds make opportune timing to support demand

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

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

Boris Johnson is playing to the aspirational working class

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

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

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

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

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

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

<strong>Christopher Worrall</strong>
Christopher Worrall

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

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

He writes in a personal capacity.

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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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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 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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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. 

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How do we reset the housing market?

England’s housing system has failed. We need to press the reset button on housing – let’s start with planning.

Rampant house price inflation. Hundreds of thousands of people trapped in unsafe buildings. Tens of thousands of families made homeless during a global pandemic. Our housing system is broken.

You would think given the state of things, that fundamental reform of housing would be top of the political agenda and an obvious vote winner. Yet this isn’t the case and we’ve seen no substantive policy action in decades, with the supply of new homes per year now well below the housebuilding highs of the  1960s and 1970s. Despite being badly needed, the popularity of the ‘not in my backyard’ mantra has made housing reform politically untenable, with devastating consequences.

This problem is most obvious at the local level. While many voters are often sympathetic to the problems of housing affordability and homelessness, they too often oppose the construction of new homes, including affordable homes. Building more homes would help tackle such problems by directly increasing the supply of affordable homes and expanding the number of housing options available to people more generally.

England’s housing crisis is a product of multiple local housing crises. In many of the areas where opposition to new homes is strongest, affordability problems are often the worst. Of course, the ramifications of this crisis are not felt equally. It is often the younger and less well-off residents who are eventually priced out of their own communities.

Building more and better homes is not a panacea. But we must acknowledge it is part of the solution. As Geoff Meen, one of the UK’s foremost housing experts has pointed out, it’s ‘perfectly possible for there to be both an absolute shortage of homes and a distribution problem’. In essence, we are not building enough homes in England, and we do not have the right policies to create more sustainable credit conditions or ensure fair access to housing for people on all incomes.

Once we acknowledge that building more homes is part of the solution, then the next question we must answer is ‘how do we build more’? Part of the answer lies in the way we deliver homes through England’s planning system. While the government’s proposed reforms aren’t flawless, they do present a vision. Significant questions about what these reforms could mean for the delivery of affordable housing persist and they certainly don’t go far enough in tackling high land values.

The answer to these weaknesses is better reforms, not no reforms. We must imagine a better alternative to our current planning system if we are to tackle the root causes of the housing crisis.

To show their credibility on housing issues, political parties must better sell a vision for a planning system that delivers the homes we need and in doing so, stops people from being priced out of their communities. That requires putting aside the short-term gains of winning immediate votes by objecting to local development and instead explaining why we need to build more homes in this country. Making the case for more homes nationally while opposing them in their backyard reduces the credibility of any national message politicians might have on housing.

The widespread opposition to the government’s planning reforms suggest that they were dead on arrival. That is not a reason to abandon attempts to address the housing crisis. At the moment, our planning system reinforces England’s broken housing market because land that obtains planning permission increases exponentially in value. This makes it increasingly difficult to build homes at affordable prices. Despite this, suitable policy solutions such as the introduction of zoning policy find few advocates and instead, the dysfunctional status quo persists.

We need to build a new consensus on housing. It is time to move beyond the short-term gains and quick wins that come from opposing new homes. Instead, politicians must present a bold and radical vision for how they will address England’s housing crisis. Now is the time for radical and ambitious vision that would improve the supply of high-quality and affordable homes, while also tackling the unfair distribution of homes.  The myriad of problems facing the housing market – from the building safety crisis to rampant unaffordability – will only get worse without action to deliver better quality and more affordable homes.

The longer the housing crisis goes unfixed, the more damage it does. Progressives must not fall into the trap of opposition for opposition’s sake. Instead, they should articulate a clear vision that that explains why the housing market is broken, why we need radical action to fix things and how a fairer society can be created if we get things right. 

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

Jonathan Webb is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North. He tweets @jrkwebb.

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Housing has to be at the heart of Labour’s vision

We have a mountain to climb to win the next election, but housing has to be at the heart of Labour’s vision as the best country to grow up and grow old in

Labour is the Party of safe, secure, affordable homes to rent and buy. We have a proud record in national and local government, upgrading social homes to make them decent and warm and building new truly affordable homes for local communities.

I’m delighted to have been appointed Shadow Housing Secretary. It’s a huge brief, with lots to do. I’m keen to work with colleagues in the Labour Housing Group to engage with voters and members on the key challenges and opportunities. 

A decade of Conservative government has made the housing emergency worse. 

The failure of the government to build social housing has pushed many into the private rented sector which has exploded in size, and cost. Taxpayers now pay billions of pounds in housing benefit to landlords, getting very little in return. Private tenants pay expensive rents, have few rights, and are often at the mercy of unscrupulous practices. The pandemic has brought renters’ plight to the forefront.

The government should make good on their promise that no one should lose their home because of the virus. I challenged Ministers to bring forward a plan to tackle the Covid rent arrears crisis recently in Parliament. We’ve argued for emergency legislation to end Section 21 evictions, yet government have kicked the Renters Reform Bill into the long grass. 

We’ve seen homeownership plummet, whilst house prices have surged, pricing first time buyers out of the market, and creating huge inequality in housing wealth. The government’s stamp duty holiday has pushed up prices wiping out the benefit whilst making it more expensive for everyone, including first time buyers, to get on or up the ladder. 

Fixing the Building Safety scandal is another priority. The Government’s approach to building safety has been ineffective, blighted by inertia, and is beset by increasing costs. I’ll work with anyone to get homeowners out of the fix they’re in. It’s wrong that leaseholders and tenants are being forced to shell out money for faults they didn’t cause, all the while living in unsafe, unsellable, homes.

Social landlords have been excluded altogether from the Building Safety Fund, using up valuable funds that they would have invested in new council/social housing after being abandoned by government. As the Building Safety Bill goes through Parliament we’ll work to get leaseholders a cast iron guarantee that they won’t have to pay for fire safety works.

We’ve also called for the government to establish a new Building Works Agency – a crack team of government-appointed experts and engineers in direct charge of resolving this crisis, going block by block, assessing risk, commissioning and funding works, certifying buildings as safe and flats sellable. 

The BWA would work closely with local authorities and fire chiefs, who have been gathering data and are well placed to know how to manage projects in their areas. The Agency would also have the legal powers to pursue those responsible for costs through the courts. 

Our Building Works Agency follows the model in Victoria, Australia. The big lesson from there that our government needs to learn fast, is that the Government needs to be interventionist, or the work will never get done. 

In Victoria, the government carried out a full-scale audit, proactively going to every building over two stories high, rather than waiting for building owners to report themselves. Cladding Safety Victoria was set up, an organisation with powers to fix dangerous buildings. Each building has a dedicated officer, and they appoint a project manager directly.

Cladding Safety Victoria uses a trusted set of fire engineers to assess the works that will be necessary. They organise the insurance, which is otherwise too hard to get on the market. Cladding Safety Victoria releases funds according to milestones and inspections. Vitally, they ensure that a fire engineer sign off the building as safe at the end. In the meantime, homeowners can sell because they have a proof that the works will be done and paid for.

For too long the government has had its head in the sand, we need to see real leadership to challenge vested interests and get the job done. 

There are lots of other issues in the in-tray too – from future proofing our homes to tackle the climate emergency and create good green jobs, to tackling homelessness, to giving social housing tenants a voice and redress in a system which undervalues them. 

My aim is to put Labour at the heart of the debate on the future of housing. We need a housing system that is safe, affordable, that works for people not simply for profit, and brings Keir’s leadership pledge that housing is a human right to life. 

We have a mountain to climb to win the next election, but housing has to be at the heart of Labour’s vision as the best country to grow up and grow old in. I look forward to working with you to achieve this. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Lucy Powell</span></strong> <strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">MP</span></strong>
Lucy Powell MP

Lucy Powell is the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Manchester Central and Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary.

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Lessons from Kosovo: Structured Development Payments

Councillor Dave Ward returns from Kosovo with lessons in development finance. He argues that allowing the land and development supply chain to share in the upside of apartment sales can lower the barriers to entry for smaller housebuilders.

I have just returned from Pristina, Kosovo where I got my new apartment ready for a summer rental to a couple of German students who are volunteering there for the summer and needed a place to stay. 

As Chair of Planning at the London Borough of Merton, I am always interested in housing and planning policy, particularly around building new homes and it was very interesting to see and learn about the differences between the UK, specifically London, and Pristina. 

Firstly, the scale is a lot smaller, Pristina is a city of nearly 150,000 people, just over eight per cent of the total 1.8 million population of Kosovo, and growing. This quite closely compares with London’s 7m people, roughly 10% of the total population of the UK. 

So both cities are the centres of government, the financial sector, the media and the headquarters of many national and international businesses and other organisations. As in London this attracts a higher population as people come to the capital for work, which then leads to housing pressures. 

Pristina is in the middle of a housebuilding boom. The block where I now live (for some of the year) is ten storeys, with roughly 60 apartments varying in size from small studios to three-bed apartments. It is one of at least eight similar blocks, either completed or under construction, just within a few hundred metres, in an attractive location just ten minutes walk from the city centre. 

The most interesting thing I discovered about housebuilding in Pristina is they way it is financed which is very different from the UK. Typically a developer will find some land upon which a block could be built, purchase it from the original landowner, pay contractors to build the block, and suppliers for the materials, then when it is complete, sell or rent the homes and try to make a profit, just like here. 

The difference is that the original landowner, contractors and suppliers are often paid, at the end of the project, in completed properties. 

For example, the company which supplies the concrete struts which form the frame of the building might, instead of cash, upon completion of the project receive a floor, 6 or 8 properties which they can sell, keep or rent as they wish. The same for the building contractors, glaziers and anyone else involved in the project. 

I was surprised at this and wanted to know more so, as I was due to meet the owner of the company which built the block I live in, I asked him about it. 

His company usually funds around half of the construction costs of a new development in this way. It is kind of a loan, without interest, but it is more expensive. He estimates that building a new block of apartments would be 5 to 10 per cent cheaper if paid up-front in cash. This is a compensation for the contractors, for instance a building firm. They need to pay their workers, purchase the materials and do their work, paying up-front, on the promise of a number of properties upon completion, not knowing for certain what they will be worth at that stage. They are taking much of the risk, and therefore take a higher return. 

This model is used widely in Kosovo and has been borrowed from nearby Turkey where this has been the norm for development for some time. 

The practical implications of this are that housebuilding is slightly more expensive, but easier to do for those without huge amounts of up-front capital. So building is not dominated by large developers funded by the major banks or the very wealthy. A relatively small company, such as the family firm which built my block, can get into the housebuilding business and deliver new homes from very small beginnings. 

Property prices and rental values in Pristina are, like London, higher than the rest of the country. They are much lower than London in actual terms, but also lower in relative terms compared to average income, wages and cost of living in Pristina. Housing is genuinely affordable for those on modest or low incomes. 

To rent an apartment like mine – 2 bedrooms in the centre of town – a single person would need a salary around the middle range in Pristina. A couple sharing would find it more affordable. This is for a sought-after area near the centre of town. Move a few miles out, a bus ride from the centre and rents and prices become comfortably affordable for the lower paid. 

Could this be replicated in full or in part in the UK? Could we open up housebuilding to smaller entrepreneurs, to housing associations, non-profit organisations, and to Local Authorities to build new housing, without the need for huge amounts of capital up front? 

I think it is worth looking into. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Dave Ward</span></strong>
Dave Ward

Dave is a Labour Councillor in the London Borough of Merton where he is Chair of the Planning Committee. He represents the ward of Colliers Wood.

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Raising Exempt Accommodation Standards

As the cabinet member for housing at the UK’s largest local authority, one thing I quickly learned was that it’s not simply enough to assume that a roof over someone’s head solves all their problems. Tackling homelessness is of course very high on the agenda, but the quality of accommodation and the support on offer is also key.

That’s why in Birmingham we are focussing on the exempt accommodation sector. Exempt accommodation is an unregulated type of supported housing. It is often used as a means of housing those with no other housing options, such as prison leavers and people from other vulnerable groups.

This sector has almost doubled in size in the city over the last two years, from 11,500 units to close to 20,000 and we’re seeing huge increases of exempt housing in some neighbourhoods, as private landlords build up portfolios of leased and owned accommodation, and then apply for registered provider status, exempting them from licensing regulations and local scrutiny. Over £200 million is spent on such housing in Birmingham alone.

Such accommodation can only be regulated through the Housing Benefit system and the regulatory standards for registered providers, overseen by RSH (Regulator of Social Housing) not local authorities on the ground. There is little or no regulation of care, support or supervision provided, merely an extremely vague requirement for it to be ‘more than minimal’. Lax Tory regulations means the sector is ripe for corner-cutting, exploitation and profiteering.

And, while there are many responsible and respected providers, there are also horror stories of vulnerable people being exploited and of neighbourhoods being blighted by an explosion of sub-standard accommodation.

So as a Labour Council what are we doing to fix things in Birmingham?

We’re focusing on halting the growth in exempt housing while vital oversight work can be carried out to:

  • Improve property standards through inspection and intervention
  • Improve support through increased scrutiny of claims
  • Gather intelligence of suspected organised criminal activity and dealing with anti-social behaviour with the police
  • Better scrutinising new claims for Exempt status

In Birmingham we are working with responsible providers who, once accredited, become the main point of referrals for statutory agencies.

We are also rolling out a Quality Standards Framework and a Charter of Rights for residents (both co-designed with people who live or have lived in exempt accommodation) to set a local standard until Government regulations catch up.

A growing number of key partners across Birmingham have now signed up to only referring to providers that adopt both the Quality Standards and Charter of Rights. This of course requires a robust inspection regime and we are piloting one in the city.

But there is only so much we can do as a Labour Council. Ultimately we need the government to change course too.

The exempt sector has been, and sadly continues to be a rich market and there’s a clear need for stronger regulatory powers so that those who provide poor standards to their tenants, face real consequences. This effort is being spearheaded in Parliament by Steve McCabe, Liam Bryne and Shabana Mahmood on behalf of Birmingham’s Labour MPs, and new West Midlands PCC – Simon Foster.

On 19th April Birmingham Labour Group in collaboration with the Birmingham Labour MPs launched a city wide petition calling on Government for urgent policy reform:

The local impact in some areas is causing a misery for tenants and local communities. We firmly believe there should be local impact assessments implemented and tests of whether someone is fit to be a landlord to protect communities. We just need government support to do so and have put a bill to parliament that would guarantee this.

In Birmingham we’re making a difference and our message to unscrupulous providers is that we’re coming for you and your time will soon be up.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Cllr Sharon Thompson</span></strong>
Cllr Sharon Thompson

Sharon Thompson has been a Labour Councillor for the Birmingham North Edgbaston ward since 2014.

Once homeless herself, and a single mother at an early age, Cllr Sharon Thompson is currently the Cabinet Member for Homes and Neighbourhoods and on the WMCA Housing & Land Delivery Board.

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The Great Tory Planning Power Grab

Recent planning reforms by this government are nothing else than a power grab, and risk future housing and our response to the climate emergencywrites Councillor Johnson Situ.

It takes something special to unite councils (of all political colours), planning bodies and campaigners in almost uniform condemnation. In recent weeks, MHCLG has reached that feat with a string of announcements and reforms to planning, which as ill-judged as they are impractical. Robert Jenrick has given these proposals lofty names such as ‘Planning for the Future’ or ‘Right to Regenerate’ but scratch beneath the surfaceand this is nothing more than a power grab from a national government intent on deregulating planning at the cost of genuinely affordable homes being built and our ability to respond to the Climate Emergency.   

Much has been written about the impact of another top-down reform to the planning system. Firstly, it is important to recognise that the planning system does need reform. Secondly, a decade of cuts to local government has meant that the planning head count has significantly decreased over the years. Yet we must recognise the plan making process can be made far more nimble and better at including communities from the onset if planning departments are adequately resourced.

However, a recent report from the LGA which showed that more than a million homes granted planning permission in the past decade still had not yet been built highlights a wider issue that needs resolving.

Equally, our vision for building high quality, genuinely affordable housing must be coupled with our commitment to tackle the climate emergency – which includes driving up environmental standards in residential homes. That ambition is dependent upon a framework that empowers local authorities to make planning decisions that promote positive environmental and public health outcomes. However, proceeding with the recent announcement risks degrading local authorities’ ability to promote high quality, sustainable housing through the planning system. 

So, if the government were interested in planning reforms that supported councils to meet the housing crisis and respond to the climate emergency, here are some things they could announce, and if not, policies the next Labour government should introduce instead:

A build out clause in granted permissions

The Government’s new Right to Regenerate proposals, which seem to amount to privatising public land by stealth, are deeply flawed. Many councils such as Southwark have ambitious council homes building programmes and are using land to build council homes. It is also silent on land banking from developers. Surely, any reforms to planning should enable planning authorities to refuse planning applications based on record of building out permissions?  

Enable plan making that is responsive to the local community and changing environment

It is a well-known fact that the current plan making process takes too long, and a running joke that by the time most plans are completed they are up for renewal again. This is particularly concerning for our response to the Climate Emergency and enabling councils to develop the right policies to encourage carbon saving technology at the right time. In recent years we have seen significant strides made in the renewable energy technology and communities have come together to develop co-operative energy organisations, all of which needs a national planning framework that actively supports it.

A report by The Committee on Climate Change in February 2019 calculated that if the current 27,000-50,000 homes built in timber frame in recent years increased to 270,000 annually, this would absorb and store three million tonnes of carbon. Now this will not be the answer to meet the entire housing need, but creating a national planning framework that enabled local authorities to strengthen plans to respond to modern methods of construction, should be a priority.

Local Authorities are ready to go further and in recent times many have already strengthen their requirement for environmentally friendly energy, and increasingly car-free developments are a fixture in more local plans. Here in Southwark, we have committed to a net zero development across our key masterplan area by 2030.

Development in the area will be car free and the promotion of walking and cycling as well as electric buses, taxis and commercial vehicles will help tackle air and noise pollution.  We are developing a District Heat Network linking new developments to the South East London Combined heat and Power plant, which will deliver both significant savings in C02 emissions and cheaper energy costs for residents. This will complement a range of low carbon energy options on new build homes across the masterplan area

A spatial planning system, which gives local authorities the ability to have a more formalised say in transport infrastructure

One of the key recommendations from Labour’s Planning Commission was the need for a spatial plan which provided a national framework but also placed a formal role on the local authority. The message of addressing regional inequality will be ignored if local communities get no say on whether their area has better transport infrastructure, and that applies for inner cities as well as northern towns and coastal areas. Whatever your view is on Heathrow’s third runway, it is absurd that the local authority had no formal input within the decision making, when local residents will have to live with the impact on air pollution and traffic in the area.

In short, if this government were serious about meeting the housing crisis and responding to the climate emergency, it would strengthen the role of local authorities within its most recent proposals. Instead it has continued with a decade-long vision to deregulate planning. The stakes are high, and we will need to be bold to build the social and genuinely affordable housing the country needs, as well as responding to the climate emergency. Reheated policies from the 80’s will not work and that is why Southwark Labour, like many Labour authorities, will be fighting these new proposals and campaigning tirelessly to elect a Labour government.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Johnson Situ</span></strong>
Johnson Situ

Johnson is the Labour Councillor for Peckham Ward (Southwark) and Cabinet Member for Climate Emergency, Planning and Transport