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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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Musical tenancies

Labour Housing Group Executive member Graham Martin moved the housing resolution passed unanimously yesterday at Labour Conference in Liverpool.
The resolution notes the growing housing crisis that will be created by the Government’s policies, falling housing starts, huge cuts to the social housebuilding programme, a jump in homelessness, and the rising costs of housing benefit caused by increased dependence on the private rented sector and escalating rents.
Specifically it calls for a shift in financing of private landlords away from buying existing homes, causing unfair competition with first time buyers, towards investment in new properties which would add to the stock and boost growth.
It welcomes the initiative by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to extend the tax on bankers’ bonuses to invest in new affordable homes. It calls for the defence of the rights of social tenants and the delivery of more social housing to be campaigning priorities for Labour in opposition.
In his speech, Graham warned that the Government’s policies run the risk of triggering ‘an
avalanche of mortgage repossessions
’.  In reference to private renting, he said ‘It is like the game musical chairs but now it is musical tenancies and as your private sector tenancy comes to an end you have to go and move. And as you play musical tenancies, your child has to play musical schools and musical doctors…. And if you are unlucky enough to need housing benefit to help pay the rent, hey presto this government has taken half the empty homes away. And now this government thinks it is such a good idea they are trying to bring in musical tenancies for council and housing association tenants.’
‘Our children need stable homes, strong communities need stable homes, and what is going on is a way to break communities.’

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LP Conference: housing policy comes centre stage on Thursday

As we have reported on Red Brick already, housing has been a big theme at this year’s Labour Party Conference.  Much of the discussion has been good and positive – although unfortunately not all.  The housing debate will come to the main Conference on Thursday morning.  There will be a debate around a ‘composite’ housing motion (ie assembled into one from a number of motions submitted by Labour Party organisations) and it is likely to be moved by Graham Martin from the Labour Housing Group Executive.  There will also be a speech from Caroline Flint.
The debate should be carried live on the BBC Parliamentary Channel (which I much prefer to the BBC2 coverage, where speakers are constantly interrupted by presenters and
commentators who seem to think they are the attraction).
Anyway, to help Red Brick readers follow the debate, below is the composite motion that
will be debated (NB it may be subject to a little grammatical tidying up before Thursday).
I think it is a motion we can all support.
Composite 4 – Housing
Conference notes with alarm the independently-commissioned forecast of the National  Housing Federation (30th August 2011) that the housing market will be plunged into a unprecedented crisis as steep rises in the private rental sector, huge social housing waiting lists, and a house price boom are fuelled by a chronic under-supply of homes.
Conference notes the publication of national house building statistics on 18 August,
showing falling housing starts and completions, and the Home Builders Federation’s ‘Housing Pipeline’ report on 26 August showing that planning permissions for new housing are also falling, the sharp fall in house building to just 23,400 homes last quarter, the 18% jump in homelessness over 12 months and the £1.3 billion pa rise in Housing Benefit payments. In the last five years of Labour Government over 250,000 new affordable homes were delivered in England, while the Tory-led government is aiming to deliver just 150,000 by 2015.
In 2010/11 just 105,000 homes were built in England – the lowest level since the 1920s. These figures are an indictment of the Government which is blind to its inevitable
consequences – increased homelessness and joblessness, rising market rents, and the inability of young and middle aged households the opportunity to either buy or rent a decent home.
Conference believes that by failing to deliver the new affordable housing to buy and to
rent that young people and families need, the Tory-led Government is holding back the aspirations of people up and down the country and failing those in need of social housing.
Conference believes the Government’s plans to abolish secure tenancies, and put social tenants at risk of eviction should they get a promotion or a pay rise will create fear and uncertainty and will create a disincentive to work.
Conference believes that with nearly 2 million households (around 4.5 million people)
nationally on council housing waiting lists and the Tory/Lib Dem government threatening security of tenure, the Government is letting down young people and families who need new affordable homes in the rented sector and in the sales market urgently.
Given the huge increase in housing benefit going to fund private landlords, we also call for a shift of financing of private sector landlord investment away from purchasing existing second hand homes (in competition with first time buyers), and towards investment in New Properties. This will result in an increase in quality supply, and better opportunities for younger and middle aged families to purchase a home.
Conference strongly believes that Labour should be on the side of all those in need of decent affordable housing, whatever their circumstances.  Conference firmly believes that the development of new housing not only meets the needs of our community but is crucial if we are to see the construction sector as a leading player in bringing strong growth back to our economy.
Conference supports measures to tackle the fraudulent sub-letting of social housing, which
deprives many in genuine need of affordable housing, and notes that in Government Labour launched a national crack down on this type of fraud.
Conference welcomes Labour’s initiative to introduce a new tax on bankers’ bonuses to
raise enough money to boost affordable housing supply.
Conference urges the Labour Party to call for a programme of investment in quality new
homes, which will provide employment, generate tax income, reduce homelessness and the cost of emergency accommodation, and reduce expenditure on unemployment and housing benefits.
Conference calls upon Labour’s Shadow Cabinet and the wider Party to make an increase in quality, sustainable, affordable housing supply including social housing and housing for first time buyers, and better opportunities for younger and middle aged families to purchase a home, key themes in policy development, and to prioritise in its housing policy review an allocations policy that is fair to everyone.
Conference resolves that defending the rights of social tenants and the delivery of more
social housing must be campaigning priorities for Labour in opposition.

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For a change, more light than heat on the PRS

Tony has pointed out that amongst the soggy canapés there are loads of meetings and discussions about housing at this year’s Labour conference.  Tomorrow we will find out
what if anything about housing makes the Leader’s speech, but today two of Ed Balls’ key initiatives involved housing: a specific commitment to use a repeat Banker’s bonus tax to fund affordable housing and a new commitment to reduce VAT on maintenance to encourage owners to repair homes.
One meeting Tony didn’t highlight attracted my attention and I went along to a meeting sponsored by New Statesman and the National Landlords Association on the future of the private rented sector.  Although I don’t always agree with what Caroline Flint has to say about social housing, I thought she was spot on in her analysis of the PRS, the need for regulation and how it might work.  I had forgotten that she was Minister when the Rugg Review was commissioned, so she has some background in this issue.  She also rather shamelessly plugged her chapter in the so-called purple book just published by Progress, in which she evidently sets out her views on PRS reform.
Although the NLA seems to favour accreditation rather than registration as the basis of a regulatory system, there was a surprising degree of consensus in the room about what a regulatory system should seek to achieve: an expanding and increasingly professionalised PRS, support and help for good landlords who want to meet good standards, and strong enforcement against bad landlords who exploit tenants and refuse to bring their properties up to scratch.  Despite the presence of several landlords and landlords’ representatives, there was no support from anyone for the current government’s laissez-faire (or is it couldn’t care less?) approach.
I was particularly impressed by a letting agent present in the audience who spoke strongly in favour of registration as the way forward, and there were good contributions on how to achieve longer tenancy terms, especially for families needing security and stability, how to control subsidy flowing to bad landlords through housing benefit, and enforcement by environmental health officers.
Sometimes a discussion hits the right tone of seriousness without ladles of rhetoric and generates more light than heat.  Here was one and I hope there will be more, especially during the housing debate scheduled for Thursday morning – housing was one of the four issues chosen through a ballot of delegates for debate on the floor of the Conference.

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Labour Housing Group events in September

There are 2 big events for LHG in September.
London Labour Housing Group
LLHG will hold its first AGM on Monday 12 September at the House of Commons.  The guest speaker will be Jon Cruddas MP who will lead a discussion on London housing policy for the mayoral election and the Labour Party’s national housing policy review.
The meeting is open to members of LHG living in London.  Labour Party members can sign up to join LHG at any time, including on the night.  For membership information, go to: http://www.labourhousing.co.uk/join-lhg
We need to know numbers in advance so if you are interested in coming, please email Steve Hilditch at steve@hilditchonline.com
LHG at Labour Party Conference.
For those attending Labour Conference in Liverpool, below is the information for LHG’s fringe meeting.

Labour Party Conference 2011 Fringe Meeting

Labour Housing Group with SERA and the Co-op Party

Homes  For The Future – reviewing possibilities
for Labour’s housing policy

Sunday 25th September 2011 –– 6.00pm – 8.00pm

Riverside Balcony, ACC BT Convention Centre

Chair Jacky Peacock OBE, Vice Chair LHG

Speakers:
Alison Seabeck MP, Shadow Housing Minister

Leonie Cooper, SERA

Huw Lewis, Welsh
Labour Minister for Housing

Admission is FREE and REFRESHMENTS are provided