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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

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Mind the Construction Skills Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Housing as a universal human right

When Leilani Farha, the former UN Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, spoke at the Labour Housing Group (LHG) Connected 2020 Fringe meeting, she argued that housing should be a universal human right. Is this achievable and if so how do we organise to achieve it? And will it bring an end to homelessness?

Her organisation, The Shift, set up in 2016, and the Municipalist Declaration of Local Governments for the Right to Housing and the Right to the City which was signed by 11 city managers across the world in 2018, plan to reclaim and realise the fundamental human right to housing:

THE SHIFT recognizes housing as a human right, not a commodity or an extractive industry. The Shift restores the understanding of housing as home, challenging the ways financial actors undermine the right to housing. Using a human rights framework, The Shift provokes action to end homelessness, unaffordability, and evictions globally.

In the film Leilani exposes the role that private equity firms play within the private rental market in city after city, and country after country, pushing up rents so that ordinary people are priced out of their own communities, alongside the mass replacement of homes where people had lived with buildings bought as an investment opportunity and now kept empty.

We are getting used to seeing the centres of our British cities hollowed out by investors buying up properties which they don’t intend to live in, but as the film illustrates, the scale of it is staggering. Two London examples are the multi-million pound unoccupied houses left empty in Belgravia, resulting in almost entirely traffic-free streets; and the replacement of council flats in one estate in Southwark – which previously had over 3000 residents – by homes that are left empty because they are simply seen as assets, mainly with foreign owners. The presenters talked about these as “dead zones”.

Other cities around the world are experiencing this form of social cleansing. In Toronto, tenants took part in a rent strike because so few repairs were being done by the new owners of their blocks, at the same time as rents were increasing by vastly more than average family incomes[1]. Tenants called the rent increases “eviction by any other name” and experienced harassment and threats for being involved in the protest.

In Kreuzberg in Germany, rent increases were seen to be forcing out both tenants and small businesses, to be replaced by corporate businesses and multi-national food companies. Footage shot in Milan, New York, Valparaiso (Chile), and Barcelona showed the threats (and violence) to families resisting being forced to leave the areas and communities they lived in.  The trend is even affecting Sweden, with its strong social democratic tradition.

We learnt tenants in many cities around the world now have the same property owner as their landlord, a private equity company called Blackstone which is now the largest property owner in the world. Their typical way of working appears to be the same across many countries: buy up blocks of flats, use plans to renovate them to force rent rises by far greater amounts than the cost of the renovations, and replace as speedily as possible the tenants who cannot afford the new rents. Blackstone also makes sure that they are pretty inaccessible to tenants, an office open just a few hours a week, as in a Swedish example.

The film describes companies buying up huge swathes of homes in inner cities as “vultures”, and “monsters than no-one can see”. What makes this all the more distasteful is the fact that private equity firms use investment from our pension funds. So our own pensions are involved here, without our knowledge or permission. Also, a chilling example was given from Italy of how Mafia money is laundered through housing investment.

Fortunately, some people can see what is happening, and are trying to stop dirty money from destroying our cities and shoving people out of the way.

41 cities included London, Manchester and Birmingham, inspired by Leilani’s campaigning work, have set up the Cities for Adequate Housing Group and signed the Municipalist Declaration of Local Governments for the Right to Housing and the Right to the City. Together and individually, they are working to combat the destruction of their cities. Several mayors talked about how they are buying back empty properties, surely what needs to be done in London, whilst others are bringing in laws aimed at stopping companies from buying up large tracts of land or property. Control of the growth of Airbnb is also part of the story, given that this sector also serves to drive ordinary people out of their cities.

Working to create an entitlement to housing as a human right is clearly the only way forward. Whilst we are waiting for a Labour government, we must urge as many cities as possible to join in. As the Cities for Adequate Housing Group says: “local governments cannot stay on the side-lines and need to take a central role.” In order to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for housing[2], we all need to sign up to a worldwide commitment for the right to housing.

If we want the next generation to be able to live in the cities we currently occupy and love, something has to change. And we need urgently to explain to them what is happening so that they can help us make those changes.

Labour Housing Group Executive has agreed that we will work, with the Front Bench team, towards establishing the Right to Housing as a human right in the UK. This will be a fitting campaign for 2021, to celebrate our 40th year of existence.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Sheila Spencer</span></strong>
Sheila Spencer

Sheila has been Secretary of the Labour Housing Group (LHG) since 2018, having re-joined LHG Executive after a gap of many years.

She believes that housing is a critical issue across the country and that Labour has great housing policies – but many people, including many members, do not yet know how Labour intends to solve the current housing crisis when next in power.

Sheila wants to see Labour in the forefront of people’s minds when they consider what needs to change. She has worked all her life in housing – in the areas of homelessness, supported housing and housing need. Sheila was a city councillor in Newcastle and is now retired.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Andy Bates</span></strong>
Andy Bates

Andy is a long-standing member of the Labour Party.  He is a member of the  Old Southwark and Bermondsey CLP.

Andy is on the executive of the London Labour Housing Group. For LHG Executive Committee, he is promoting and co-ordinating LHG members going out to speak to CLPs and branches about housing issues.


[1] Over 30 years, rents in Toronto have gone up by 425% compared to 133% for average incomes.

[2] SDG11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” by 2030

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Does the housing sector hold the key to an improved electoral register?

As we all know, there are gaping holes in electoral registers in the UK, but it appears that it is not just in the United States that some right wing politicians seem to be happy about people being excluded from voting. A debate in the House of Commons in early November, during the discussion of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill 2019-21, has highlighted this once again.

Following amendments made in the House of Lords, a majority of MPs sadly voted to reject the proposal to add 16-year-olds to the register, or to provide them with information on how to apply to join the register when they receive their National Insurance number.

Last November, just before the deadline to register for the 2019 General Election, the Electoral Commission revealed that between 8.3 million and 9.4 million eligible voters were not on the register from their current address; this is about 17%  – just under 1 in 5 – of the adult population.

We should be alarmed enough at that fact on its own, but other data published for 2018 shows that 1 in 4 Black and Asian people were not registered to vote, and nor were around 1 in 3 amongst 18-24 year olds. Furthermore, whilst almost 1 in 5 of social tenants were not registered, around 1 in 3 of private tenants were not on the list to vote. These are indeed shocking figures, and we really do need to take action to rectify this.

In part, this is due to the botched introduction of individual electoral registration made by the Coalition Government in 2014: against the advice of the Electoral Commission, instead of parents registering their adult children or institutional landlords like universities registering everyone in halls of residence, each person now has to register themselves, and must do so each time they move.

The change was rushed in without either electors or universities being given time to understand what the change meant. As a result, at least 600,000 voters vanished from the electoral roll, and a significant proportion of these have not yet been recovered.

While many universities have made efforts to encourage students to register, including information about registration in packs for first year students in halls or elsewhere, there are huge gaps in registrations for private tenants – both students and others – and particularly those in multi-occupied buildings where it can be hard for registration agents employed by local authorities to gain access.

Even without new legislation, it is arguable that local authorities could do more to encourage registration, for example using the contact they have with council tax payers, benefit claimants, parking permit users, blue badge holders, care users, and indeed, parents of school children.

But it is also possible for the housing sector to more do to help. Firstly, all councils, ALMOs and Housing Associations could make registering to vote easy for their tenants, getting people to sign an electoral registration form when they sign up for a new tenancy, and reminding them to re-register every time they move. Many housing organisations carry out programmed tenancy checks, often using electoral registers as part of the exercise, so they could easily contact and provide a prompt to all those not registered. At the very least, registering to vote should form part of every conversation with a new or relocating tenant, and at least once a year with all other tenants.

Secondly, information could be made available to housing staff, and to community organisations, particularly those working with tenants whose first language may not be English. They could explain who is allowed to register to vote and for which elections (it’s not entirely straightforward, as all Labour Party canvassers will know!), as well as the need for each individual to register and how to do it.

Thirdly, and very importantly, all support and care providers should ensure that their staff know how to help people register and how to vote. This should be part of the contract for every employee working with vulnerable residents, including helping them to access information about the candidates and the political parties they represent, and helping them to access the voting system, all of which can be done without displaying any political bias themselves. Coming across a resident who had wanted to vote but could not get to the polling station, fill in a ballot paper, or register to vote without help is amongst my least favourite experiences on Polling Day.

Finally, what can we do about private tenants, some of whom move every year as a result of Thatcher’s dismantling in 1988 of security of tenure in the private rented sector? It’s of course really a matter for Parliament to change the way that this is done: in Australia, individual voter registration has been in place for years, with voters staying on the register even if they move, with cross-referencing between multiple databases making it far less likely that people will be lost. In this country, the work has to be done by each council on a separate basis, with thousands of people coming off the register in each district every year, meaning a huge waste of resources.

Until we get a change to address this (and, my preferred option, to introduce compulsory registration) at national level, we have to rely on action at a local level. Private sector housing teams could ensure voter registration is mentioned at all meetings with landlords, even making it a requirement to issue an electoral registration form as part of landlord licensing and accreditation schemes.

The easiest solution to the unacceptable rate of electoral registration in the UK would be to automatically register people when they got their NI number, and require people to register each time they moved. But until we have a government that wants to make it as easy as possible for people to register, housing organisations which are in touch with a significant number of electors one way or another could take some responsibility for helping them to make their voices heard.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Sheila Spencer</span></strong>
Sheila Spencer

Sheila has been Secretary of the Labour Housing Group (LHG) since 2018, having re-joined LHG Executive after a gap of many years.

She believes that housing is a critical issue across the country and that Labour has great housing policies – but many people, including many members, do not yet know how Labour intends to solve the current housing crisis when next in power.

Sheila wants to see Labour in the forefront of people’s minds when they consider what needs to change. She has worked all her life in housing – in the areas of homelessness, supported housing and housing need. Sheila was a city councillor in Newcastle and is now retired.

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Tackling the Environmental & Housing Crisis: The Case for Green Homes

Coronavirus has upended everything. Within the space of a week in the spring, the pandemic has taken centre-stage in our social and political lives and has remained there, immovable, ever since. So interwoven into the experience of everyday life has the virus become, it sometimes feels difficult to think about much else.

In many ways it’s absolutely right that our attention should be so fully devoted to discussing covid-19 and, in particular, how to contain it. Bearing down on the spread of the virus to protect life and jobs is arguably the single biggest challenge the country and the world has faced since WW2.

But there are two additional crises that lurk not far into the horizon. In fact they are already here. These are the dual threats of the housing crisis on the one hand, and environmental collapse on the other. As scientists have evidenced, the latter creates the conditions for viruses like covid-19 and others to spread in the first place.

Left unchecked these twin crises will get worse and spin out of control.

Just consider this. It’s possible that environmental degradation could lead our planet close to becoming uninhabitable by the end of the century. The destruction of nature isn’t just about climate change — undoubtedly an existential risk and one that has received a lot of attention since last year. It’s also about extreme biodiversity loss and a rapid decrease of land and soil productivity — two issues which get too little attention and which, in the words of the UN, are “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

On the other hand, the collapse of affordable housing has proved a disaster for many and may get worse. Home-ownership is out of reach for a generation of young people, in parts of the country average rent equates to three-quarters of median pay, and tens of thousands of families live in insecure temporary accommodation. Without access to a place people can reliably call home, the foundations of democratic norms — norms which rely on basic levels of socio-economic security for all — are at risk.

But this needn’t be our fate. We can carve out a different future, one where we provide housing security for everyone and safeguard nature at the same time. Doing this requires implementing a wide range of governmental interventions and creating market conditions which favour people and the planet above unbridled profit. But there is one policy area where we can begin to tackle both crises at once — and that’s unlocking the potential for environmentally friendly housing while making housing genuinely affordable.

So how do we do it?

Change begins with shifting how we think about housing. Much of the debate frames environmental protection and boosting housing supply through the prism of trade-offs: we sacrifice the former for the latter (or the reverse), say by building on the green belt (or choosing not to). But new-build and enhancing environmental protections can be two sides of the same coin.

Indeed, innovation and policy change is already moving us in that direction. Some developers are incorporating enhancements to ecosystems within their developments, like increasing beehives and bird boxes in urban settings. In parallel, bodies like the London Assembly champion ideas to nudge or require developers to think green — like incorporating requirements for minimal ‘green space factors’ into planning and recognising innovative ideas through award schemes.

In addition, the more we can transform the infrastructure that neighbourhoods rely on towards sustainable ends, the more we can move in this direction. For instance, we must ensure transport links are green — whether it’s by prioritising walking and cycling links above roads, and when roads are necessary ensuring they’re used by electric cars, not gas-guzzling vehicles.

A second step lies in pushing back on historic, out-dated practices in the development industry. At the forefront of this change is challenging a de facto presumption in favour of demolition. Demolition is massively wasteful — in the UK alone, the construction industry accounts for 60% all materials used. In addition, the development industry accounts for 45% of carbon emissions, and when demolition happens it releases huge amounts of “embodied carbon”. The alternative should be a presumption in favour of refurbishment with demolition there as a genuine last resort.

It is possible to refurbish whilst unlocking affordable housing. The long-term consequences of covid are likely to be empty office buildings in the centre of cities, as white-collar workers shift to working from home on a more regular basis. Local and regional leaders must therefore find ways of bringing back empty premises into use as affordable and quality housing. We’ve already seen councils take similar steps to revitalise centre city living when perceived urban decay has been a challenge in the past.

In cities like Liverpool city centre, living increased by 181% from 2002 and 2015, whilst in Birmingham it increased by 163%, and these changes were a result of proactive policy interventions. Living in these areas is now associated with a good quality of life, in effect embracing the Mayor of Paris’ 15 minute living concept where everything one would need (whether it’s access to gyms, restaurants, the supermarket, or schools) is within close walking distance.

A third move is embedding the circular economy into any new affordable housing development. From deploying renewable energy sources, like heat pumps and solar, through to releasing more subsidies for insulating homes, change is well under-way on this front. The shift needs to be coupled with sustainably disposing of waste and in particular food waste — an issue that lies behind a whopping 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

What this means is getting people to waste less food in the first place, and when waste is inevitable making sure it’s composted or ends up in anaerobic digestion plants not landfill or being incinerated. Crucially, using resources intelligently helps with the affordability of living expenses. Cutting fuel bills can lead to hundreds of pounds in household savings, whilst eating not wasting edible food can save the average household £500 per year.

These are just some changes that we can make to marry the need for genuinely affordable housing with sustainability. What’s outlined above does not negate how difficult achieving the scale of transformation we need to see will be. But the urgency with which we increasingly understand the environmental crisis, coupled with new technological opportunities, means citizens, policy-makers and developers are very clearly beginning to envision and see the opportunity to build another future.

This week Labour challenged the government to ‘Build it in Britain’ and support the creation of 400,000 jobs, including in the crucial manufacturing sector, through a green recovery from the Covid crisis. Action now would support the creation of new jobs and tackle the climate and environmental crisis, and includes expanding energy efficiency and retrofit programmes, including in social housing.

For too long we’ve negated people’s right to secure housing whilst undermining the natural world. Covid-19 is undoubtedly the biggest short challenge facing us, but we need to walk and chew gum at the same time, keeping focused on tackling the twin threats of insecure housing and environmental breakdown.

The moment for change is now.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Pancho Lewis</span></strong>
Pancho Lewis

Pancho Lewis is a Westminster Councillor, where he is Shadow Cabinet Member for Environment, and works for the food waste start-up Too Good To Go.

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Progressive planning changes are needed not whole-scale reform

The anticipated planning reforms will be the biggest changes to the planning system seen for some time – a complete overhaul. Planning isn’t perfect, but nor is it beyond repair. If government are serious about housing delivery, they’d be talking about sensible improvements not whole-scale reforms. Instead they seem intent on riding roughshod over local people and all too willing to put private profit ahead of what our neighbourhoods actually need. So if it were up to me, what would I be doing? There’s plenty to do, but these are three things I’d start with.

Firstly, the housing delivery test. A small but technical change could really push developers sitting on land with permission to actually focus on delivery. The Local Government Association estimate that nearly 9 out 10 applications are approved and in the last decade alone nearly a million homes have not been built despite permissions being granted. The Housing Delivery Test measures the number homes delivered against the number of homes required. Where delivery of housing has fallen below the housing requirement, councils can be penalised.  

The main issue is the fact that Councils, unless they are their own schemes, do not deliver planning permissions – they are totally reliant on the market/ developers/ registered providers.  Developers may seek to restrict delivery in order to maintain profit levels; landowners may gain permission and land bank rather than actually deliver; and registered providers are also heavily dependent on state funding streams.  Crucially, events such as cyclical changes to the economy, and currently Covid-19, can significantly affect delivery which councils have no control over.

So a solution? Give local authorities the power to rescind permissions or more radical still take the build over themselves, if possible using better compulsory purchase orders if development does not begin within a year. Not a huge change but certainly could stop land-banking and start delivering housing and infrastructure.

Secondly, permitted development (PD). It has morphed into a policy that will cause more harm to a locality than actually result in good quality homes and a Government report has concluded the same. Aside from the fact there have been numerous cases of horrendous office to residential conversions and no obligations to affordable housing, PD has resulted in the displacement of valuable business and employment in many areas because the residential return far exceeds the commercial. The new permitted development rights could actually see high streets decline even further. Something that goes against what the Government are seeking to do.

I am not suggesting residential conversions can’t take place in high streets but it needs to be in a planned process that takes in to account the local economy and secures quality and space standards. In Brent we have introduced an Article 4 direction in growth areas to stop office to residential conversions and are now seeking to expand that for the whole borough. My solution would be to give councils the ability to opt in to PD with guaranteed quality of housing, rather than a blanket nationwide policy. It needs to be locally led and part of a solution to address local housing, infrastructure and economic needs.  

Thirdly, public sector land should be developed in partnership with local councils not developers. Currently, many public sector bodies have housing targets and often go to developers to deliver those numbers. This results in public sector land being sold, as well as not delivering 100% affordable housing due to ‘unviable’ financial viability assessments.

A simple solution is to legislate that public sector organisations give councils first right of refusal on land to deliver housing or enter in some sort of partnership. Councils can borrow again to build housing and combined with grants, schemes can be delivered with higher numbers of affordable and social homes on all public sector land.

Essentially, these solutions are small but significant and are certainly not only thing we need to do. Fix what is currently not working in the system, give councils the freedoms and powers to maximise affordability, infrastructure and support for local economies. Covid has changed so much and it now time to take decisive action to support councils properly in housing and infrastructure delivery. It is now time to enable councils to lead the housing market, not be hampered by it. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Shama Tatler</span></strong>
Shama Tatler

Councillor Shama Tatler is the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Property and Planning at the London Borough of Brent. She was elected to represent the Labour Party in Fryent Ward in May 2014 and has been a Cabinet Member since Dec 2016.
 
She is running for the Labour Party NEC and her reasons for running can be found here. Shama also sits on the LGA City Regions Board and the West London Economic Prosperity Board.

Visit her website below: http://www.shamatatler.com/