Whither, or wither, Labour’s radical housing policy?

By Glyn Robbins

September 24th 2019 was a big day for some housing campaigners.  Amidst Brexit turmoil and the recall of Parliament, Labour’s annual conference unanimously passed composite motion 23.  This was, by some distance, the most progressive statement of housing policy intent from a major political party for a generation.  After years of treading the tired path of failing pro-market orthodoxy, Labour’s membership signalled the need for “root and branch” change.  This included an explicit call for 100,000 new council homes a year, paid for with £10 billion of direct government investment, more rights for private tenants and the homeless, reform of housing associations and scrapping the Right to Buy.

A lot has happened in the nine months since.  But nothing has altered the need for radical action on housing.  On the contrary, the overlapping crises of COVID-19 with an already weak capitalist economy that is now much weaker, only heightens the urgency, particularly with a tidal-wave of evictions on the horizon.  Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter uprising has begun to highlight that housing and racism have a long history together that must be broken.

Boris Johnson’s fake claims of a New Deal leave an opening for Labour to offer a Real Deal.  Using the policies passed at conference, the Party could lead a national campaign for social and economic recovery and racial justice by building the homes we need and – like FDR in the 1930s – use public housing as an engine for job creation.  A new generation of energy efficient council housing would help working class communities regain the kind of stability that decades of neoliberalism have undermined.

The urgent need for direct government investment in publicly owned, democratically accountable housing is now returning to the mainstream.  Echoing the long-held demands of the Defend Council Housing campaign, in July 2019, TV personality George Clarke called for 100,000 new council homes a year.  His online petition was signed 210,000 times.  The Local Government Association has now followed suit.  The influential National Infrastructure Commission has correctly stated that building council housing is the only way to meet the huge demand for homes people can afford (The Times, 8th July 2020).

These are encouraging signs.  But the grip of the big private house builders, who make billions in profit by controlling the supply of new homes, won’t be broken without a fight.  To win that struggle, the labour movement needs a unifying strategy that’s crystal clear.  Deliberately misleading and increasingly discredited terms like “social” and “affordable” housing must be dropped because they allow developers too much room to manipulate the planning system in their own interests.  In his excellent book on this subject, The Property Lobby, Bob Colenutt describes how “local authorities have entered into risky and one-sided public-private partnerships, often with disastrous consequences”.  But a leading councillor in a Labour-controlled borough still recently told me he was prepared to “work with whoever” to get homes built.

This apparent refusal to learn the lessons of the past has no more ruinous example than the demolition of council estates.  There are currently hundreds of rooted communities and thousands of habitable homes threatened with destruction.  Johnson’s “Build, Build, Build” agenda is a reminder that the Tories and their developer friends view council estates as “brownfield” sites in “high value” areas.  As the Focus E15 campaign has repeatedly said, there can be no justification for keeping council homes empty for years during a housing emergency.  Instead, Labour authorities should be working together to demand government money now, to bring all council homes up to a high standard, including retro-fitting them for the kind of energy efficiency measures that only collective ownership can optimise.

The Homes for All alliance has recently written to the Labour Party’s national policy forum warning against any back-tracking on the policies outlined in composite motion 23.  However, there are some worrying signs.  As with the Cummings outrage and Black Lives Matter, the shadow cabinet are misreading the public mood and reverting to political caution.  Thousands of tenants, who can’t pay the rent because they’ve lost jobs or income due to COVID, face eviction unless the government is compelled to offer them the same level of protection as landlords.

While landlords are benefiting from deferred mortgages, not to mention the various public subsidies homeowners and buy-to-let investors already receive – and they got another big state hand-out from Rishi Sunak last week – it‘s outrageous that people in financial hardship should face homelessness if they can’t afford the rent.  But instead of unequivocally backing tenants, the shadow Housing Minister, Thangam Debbonaire, has resorted to the lawyerly circumlocutions that are becoming the new regime’s signature tune.  Many politicians have supported the growing #CancelRent movement in the US and it’s another missed opportunity for the Labour Party leadership not to do the same.  Describing it as “un-Labour” and instead proposing a two-year payback of arrears suggests a worrying detachment from the reality of the current situation and working class people’s lives.

Its position on the critical issue of housing reflects the wider questions facing the Labour Party.  Retreating to the polices of the Blair-Brown era will condemn future generations to housing misery.  We need an ambitious vision on a scale that matches the gravity of our times and offers hope for a society where good housing and good health are the hallmarks of equality.  As it showed after Word War II, a united labour movement has the power to turn those visions into reality.

Glyn Robbins is a housing campaigner who has written for The Guardian and Independent,. He is the author of There’s No Place: The American Housing Crisis and What It Means for the UK (Red Roof 2017). He is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.