By Glyn Robbins
Prior to the 2017 general election, the Homes for All campaign warned that housing was at a crossroads between maintaining any alternative to the dysfunctional private market, or allowing housing to be monopolised by those who only see it as a source of profit. Two general elections, a serious defeat for the left and a global pandemic later, we’re staring into the abyss.
Housing campaigners can run the risk of catastrophising, but we have seen a profound social problem develop over many years with seeming irresistibility. Each new phase in the downward spiral is greeted with alarm and wherever possible, opposition. But the incremental worsening of the situation becomes marked by more dire predictions of the consequences.
Now we face a confluence of forces that could reshape UK housing for a generation. The ideological threat was confirmed by Boris Johnson’s virtual party conference speech on 6th October. It dripped with disingenuity and vacuous policy announcements, but included a clarion call to Tory housing values. He referred to the “joy and pride of home ownership”, compared with tenants who “rent a home they cannot truly love”.
Johnson had the audacity to invoke “the post-war new Jerusalem” and allude to the super-exploitation of private renters, a situation his and preceding governments have deliberately created. In another attempt to resurrect the 40 year-old spirit of Thatcher’s Right to Buy, he argued that Labour “deeply dislike home ownership”,.
This was a direct political challenge to the Labour Party and one it has ducked. Since the Prime Minister’s speech, Labour Party HQ has issued 29 press releases. Not one of them confronts Johnson’s false housing narrative. Angela Rayner’s immediate reaction was a pitiful six-liner. With the welcome exception of a statement calling for post-Grenfell safety recommendations to be fully implemented, we have to go back to 30th September before we find an attempt by the Labour Party to raise housing in the media.
This is indicative of the party’s timidity on the issue. In response to Johnson’s speech, It could have pointed to the massive home-building achievements of the post-war Labour government and added that this was based on council housing which, contrary to Johnson’s prejudice, has been “truly loved” by millions of working class people and remains the best route out of the housing crisis. Instead, we have silence.
The most pressing danger of the housing situation getting even worse is the lifting of the COVID eviction ban on 21st September. Again, all we get from the Labour Party is a sound-bite. Besides the correct call on the government to honour its pre-coronavirus pledge to scrap “no fault” evictions, there’s nothing to give tenants threatened with homelessness a sense that the Labour Party will fight with them. Somewhat belatedly, Momentum has joined private renter campaign groups in saying it will organise to resist evictions. It remains to be seen what this means in practice.
But Labour is not alone in failing to meet the enormity of the moment and of course, changing politics needs more than better PR. Some of the cause of our current housing discontent lies with agencies who may once have been seen as advocates for serious reform, but are increasingly compromised by their closeness to the establishment.
One example is Shelter. On 16th September, some housing campaigners were in Parliament Square demonstrating against the impending lifting of the eviction ban, which Shelter had warned could lead to a “tidal wave” of people losing their homes. Instead of supporting the protest, Shelter was supporting an event two-minutes away, organised by Bright Blue, a “pressure group for liberal conservatives”. While distancing itself from grassroots anti-eviction campaigns, Shelter has also formed an alliance with private landlords.
One ostensive reason for these dubious friendships is for Shelter to promote its “invest in social housing” campaign. This initiative is welcome, but only up to a point. In January 2019, the organisation launched a “vision” for a 20-year programme to build 3.1 million “social” homes, with investment of £10 billion a year. As I wrote then, this manifesto went some way beyond the Labour Party position at the time and perhaps influenced the much better position eventually adopted at its 2019 conference. But, Shelter still refuses to explicitly acknowledge council housing or recognise the essential differences between it and so-called “social” housing.
This is not semantics. If anyone is still in doubt about why, look no further than what’s happening at the Holloway Prison site in Islington. This was ten acres of public land, “acquired” in March 2019 by Peabody housing association for £81 million with a combination of a grant and a loan from the Mayor of London. Various in-principle agreements were put in place to ensure that, in return, at least 42% of the new homes built would be for social rent. Now Peabody, supposedly a “social” landlord, but one which made a £197 million profit last year and has assets of £8 billion, is trying to renege on the deal.
This is where the dissembling of Shelter and others leads. Anyone whose been round the political block knows it’s sometimes necessary to make common cause with those we wouldn’t agree with on other things. But failing to be clear about policies, particularly around vague terms like “affordable housing”, creates confusion which the likes of Boris Johnson, right-wing thinktanks and their property developer allies and paymasters exploit at the expense of working class communities.
An alternative scenario for Holloway Prison – and one which local campaigners called for – was for Sadiq Khan to buy the site (he has the money), keep it in public ownership and thereby make it possible to build up to 1,000 genuine council homes, with secure tenancies and truly affordable rents, in a borough where 18,000 households are on the waiting list. This would have set an example for the scores of other publically-owned sites around the UK.
Ruinous as four decades of pro-market housing policy have been, things could still deteriorate. To the extent that local people and their democratically elected politicians have any control over the activities of private developers (including housing associations) it comes through the planning system. This is often a weak protection, but at least requires a degree of public scrutiny and accountability. However, on 5th August, the government announced its intention to fulfil a long-held Tory ambition of dismantling the post-war planning regime. The trigger for this is the COVID crisis: the justification that it’s the planning system that prevents the UK from building the homes it needs, a fallacy that has repeatedly been refuted.
Criticism of the proposed planning reforms have come from many sources, including the former Prime Minister, Theresa May and environmental groups warning of the potential impact on climate change. Housing campaigners have correctly described the white paper as “a developer’s charter” that could reduce the number of non-market rented homes even further. Time will tell if the proposals reflect a weak government desperately throwing some red meat towards its right-wing base. But there’s no room for complacency. If they are enacted, the reforms would remove one of the few restraints on predatory property spivs, of the type Robert Jenrick prefers to discuss planning decisions with over dinner.
Relaxing planning controls is part of a neoliberal fantasy of a housing free market. If this ever existed, it led to the Victorian urban slums that continued to blight the lives of working class people until council housing was won. But in truth, the market has always been loaded in favour of private property interests, with tax breaks, corporate welfare and a biased political system. It remains one of the great lies of housing policy that council housing and other forms of non-market rented homes are subsidised, while owner occupation and the private market are not. As the London Tenants Federation has reported, 75% of government spending on housing goes to subsidising a private market that consistently fails to deliver the homes we need, while still allowing developers to make huge profits.
As the former UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, Leilani Farha, has said, “Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation”. This rancid Tory government has made it clear that, when it comes to housing, it wants business as usual, even during a pandemic. The whole labour movement must join a fight against evictions, but also for real change to the system that causes them.
- The planning white paper is open to consultation until 29th October. CLPs, trade union branches, etc. are encouraged to respond.
- 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.
- Image: Barnet housing activist Janette Evans addressing rally in Parliament Square