“The party of homeowners and tenants” – Lucy Powell’s full conference speech

Lucy Powell

Below is the full text of the speech delivered this afternoon by Shadow Housing Secretary Lucy Powell to Labour conference 2021 in Brighton.

Conference. Good afternoon. Those who know me know I’m a proud Mancunian. Manchester is in my DNA. My experiences growing up, living and now representing Manchester have shaped my politics. The city’s been transformed over my lifetime, mainly for the better. However, some of the harsh inequalities of my youth have widened after years of Conservative rule. Nowhere more than in housing.

The semi-detached I grew up in, bought on the basic salaries of a teacher and social worker, now totally out of reach for my kids. My grandparents’ old house – Irish immigrants who took huge pride in their small garden – now in a street full of neglected buy-to-lets. The terraced houses formerly of aspiring factory workers, now over-crowded, poor quality rentals. The once derelict City Centre transformed, but the ancient laws of leasehold not working for homeowners.

Most now wait for years for a council house. I see all around me the housing crisis. Manchester Labour is rising to the challenge, albeit, with its hands tied behind its back. Their approach inspires mine. We’ve lost somewhere that housing isn’t simply an asset to be traded, but the fundamental cornerstone of a successful life. Covid came and shone a bright light on these divides too, when home had new meaning. Between those in comfortable homes and those on the streets, or in insecure, unaffordable, or overcrowded homes. We saw that housing is very much a public health issue.

Through history, after a crisis of this magnitude, we have built a better future. Homes fit for heroes after World War One. The Attlee government putting housing at the heart of post-war Britain. New settlements – needed once in every generation. Conference, that moment for us is now. It starts with understanding the roots of our current crisis.

The Conservatives see housing as a commodity: to be traded, profited from, part of an investment portfolio, a pension pot, not as the bedrock of stable lives and life chances. Their record speaks for itself: Record numbers living in insecure private rents, a huge net loss of social housing. And with over-heated prices and homeowner numbers down –they can’t even claim the mantle of homeownership anymore. The link between wages and housing costs is now broken, leaving millions exposed to the universal credit cut. And their woeful record of switching our homes to green, means we are very vulnerable to the current energy crisis.

Four years on from the tragedy at Grenfell, we’ve got a Building safety scandal – a tragic symbol of housing policy gone wrong: deregulation, no oversight, an unwillingness to intervene. Leaving hundreds of thousands of innocent leaseholders trapped in unsellable homes. The so-called party of home-ownership rings very hollow to them. But I hear we have Michael Gove coming to the rescue! Do me a favour. Ask the teachers! Less a knight in shining armour, a wrecking ball more like!

We’ve got a plan: a Building Works Agency to assess, fix and fund and then certify all tall buildings. Then pursue those responsible for costs. And we would put in law that leaseholders won’t pay. We aren’t afraid to take on the tough challenges that our new settlement demands. We will be bold, radical, forward thinking, and empowering. And conference, on housing I think we can agree – let’s move on from the false choices: A new settlement must include a massive increase in council and social homes, fit for all ages.

That means we can’t continue with the huge net loss in council houses resulting from Right to Buy and its huge discount. I see no contradiction in us also promoting home-ownership – not for more landlords or second homes, but for ordinary working people – nurses, electricians, delivery drivers and care workers – currently priced out. Their aspirations for home-ownership will be met by Labour. Central to this is bold action on restoring the link between wages and housing costs. And tackling the thorny issues of quality, affordability and security in private rentals. Ending rough sleeping. And no-fault evictions. Meeting our climate targets. Housing as a human right – all at the heart of our new settlement.

It’s not easy – but solutions are already out there. That’s why we are launching our great housing challenge: learning from Labour councils, our fantastic mayors and trailblazing Welsh government. Developing our housing plan together. A key part of this vision is building more truly affordable homes.

For too long, speculators and developers have held most of the cards – ducking minimal commitments, extracting huge value from the public for land, and doing too little for first time buyers and local people. That’s why Labour will give local authorities new powers to buy and develop land for housing, and revitalise town centres, by reforming arcane compensation rules. This could generate up to 100,000 new homes a year, much of which social and affordable.

The current definition of affordable is anything but, linked to over-heated market rates. We will set a new definition linked to local wages. We will close loopholes that let developers wriggle out of commitments. We will give first time buyers first dibs on new developments, and put an end to the outrageous practise of foreign hedge funds purchasing swathes of new homes, off plan. These reforms, a first step to put housing at the heart of the battle for Downing Street.

Labour, the party of home-owners and tenants, the Tories, the party of speculators and developers. Labour, once in a generation, fixing the housing crisis with a new settlement. Where everyone has the right to a safe, secure, stable, warm, truly affordable home. The bedrock to a successful, happy life. That time is now, and together we can rise to it. Thank you.

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