Britain’s Housing Crisis: Developing Labour’s Response

By Liz Davies, Southampton Test CLP

Everyone, even the Tories, agrees that there is a housing crisis.

The Tories’ White Paper 18 months ago was called “Fixing the Broken Housing Market”. Since then they have made noises apparently promoting the building of more council homes and introducing some security and rent stability in the private rented sector. And they pledge to end rough sleeping by 2027. All rhetoric and hollow talk, designed to square the circle between the devastating effect of the housing crisis on so many people, and the Tories’ ideological belief that the “market” will fix it. Their proposal to introduce three year tenancies in the private rented sector (taken directly from Labour’s 2015 manifesto) has been kicked into the long grass in response to their landlords’ lobby. Their Green Paper contains some proposals to build more council homes, but concentrates on a shibboleth that council tenants feels stigmatised and suggests some soothing words in response. The best news is that, due to sustained campaigning and opposition by councils and council tenants together, the Tories have junked their plans to introduce limited council tenancies and to force councils to sell off empty homes.

Labour is working away at a detailed, concrete housing policy. John Healey MP launched a Green Paper “Housing for the Many” in June 2018 and the consultation remains open. Labour invites submissions by email to socialhousingreview@labour.org.uk.

Labour’s Green Paper is a great start and it has been described as the most radical housing plan since 1945. It commits to building a million affordable homes over 10 years, to suspend right to buy in England (it is already abolished in Scotland and Wales) and proposes a new definition of “affordable” rents or home ownership costs at no more than one third average net income. If Labour was elected to government tomorrow, these policies would make a real difference to the prospects for thousands to live in secure, decent and affordable homes.

But there are some areas that still need thinking through. We are pledged to end the scandal of homelessness and eradicate rough sleeping. Jeremy Corbyn announced a tax on holiday homes to pay for tackling homelessness. That’s excellent news. He has also said – to the homelessness charity Crisis – which Labour would abolish the offensive and punitive test of “becoming homeless intentionally” but Corbyn’s words do not yet appear in Labour’s housing policy. Rough sleeping will only be eradicated if councils are required to provide emergency accommodation to all homeless people, and the punitive tests of “priority need”, “eligibility” and “becoming homeless intentionally” are abolished.

A small tax on second homes is a start when it comes to solving the problem of homelessness. Labour should also take steps to end the scandal of empty homes. A Labour government should establish a register of vacant properties under section 151 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016, and amend the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 to allow councils to take temporary possession of empty properties in an emergency without the need for a compulsory purchase order. Alternatively, Labour should look at other measures of taking possession of empty homes, after an appropriate warning to the owner, and with compensation paid at limited levels, in order to let them at an affordable rent. At the very least, the possibility of punitive measures against empty homes would deter the practice of buying properties for capital investment and leaving them empty.

Labour should decriminalise squatting in residential properties. Squatting empty properties is a benefit to the community and should not be a crime. There are quick and effective civil remedies against squatters where an owner of an empty property requires possession (and, contrary to popular myth, squatters do not move into occupied homes and if they did, that would be a criminal offence).

We need to know what proportion of the new homes built will be council homes. At present there is reference to “affordable” homes, meaning social housing, private renting and owner-occupied homes. All three sectors need to be affordable and accessible to people on low incomes. But council housing has been shamefully neglected since 1980. To take its rightful place as a sector that people are proud to live in, we need a massive programme of council building.

Labour Conference voted to refer back two important parts of the housing policy forum report. Labour’s proposal is to suspend the right to buy in England. By a big majority that policy was referred back, with the clear message sent by Conference that it wanted to abolish right to buy. So now the policy forum has to think again. Right to buy is responsible for the decimation of council housing: from over 5 million council homes in 1980, there are now around 1.6 million (some transferred to housing associations). Labour’s suspension would allow councils to permit the right to buy if they could commit to replacing the stock lost: for each home bought, another one is built. The Labour Welsh Government and Scottish SNP have abolished right to buy. England should follow suit. Conference also agreed a reference back so that the Policy Commission should consider that ballots on estate regeneration schemes could become binding.

Labour has rightly attacked exorbitant rents and lack of security in the private rented sector. Its solution, since the 2015 manifesto, has been fixed term tenancies, so that tenants have security for at least three years. John Healey has announced that Labour will bring in measures to control rents, improve conditions and improve security in the private rented sectors, and facilitate a renters’ union. We need more detail: will there be control on the overall amount of rent or on increases in rent? Will the abolition of section 21 and no fault evictions only apply during the three year tenancy or will the tenancy automatically renew at the end of the three year period?

Legislating to provide for greater rights for tenants and homeless people can only be effective if those rights can be enforced through the Courts. Richard Burgon’s announcement that Labour would restore legal aid for all housing cases is very welcome. Labour should also consider restoring legal advice for welfare benefits, so that mistakes, or punitive decisions, by the DWP can be solved early on, before rent arrears spiral out of control.

Overall, these proposals will be real vote-winners for Labour come the general election. Huge numbers of voters are affected by the housing crisis, those who can’t afford anywhere to live, and those who move from private rented tenancy to private rented tenancy every year or six months, those who are living in squalid emergency accommodation. More detail would help, particularly on our commitment to build council homes and rights for private renters. But a Labour government implementing these proposals would start to create a society where most people are properly housed, and where the scandal of homelessness has been eliminated.