How Labour must hold the government’s feet to the fire on the housing crisis

Martin Wicks
© Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

Speaking at the Labour Campaign for Council Housing fringe meeting at Labour conference, shadow housing minister Mike Amesbury congratulated us on “successfully campaigning to reaffirm our commitment to mass council house building and ending right to buy”. He challenged the Labour Campaign for Council Housing to “hold our feet to the fire” – and we will certainly do that. We have asked for a meeting with Lucy Powell to discuss how we can implement the housing motion that was passed by conference, and implement it quickly. It is Labour’s job to hold the government’s feet to the fire on the housing emergency.

Amid the celebration of the motion passing, one critical thing must not be overlooked. It did not simply try to commit some future Labour government to its demands, but said: “Conference calls on the Labour Party to demand that the government takes action now to end the housing crisis.” It was followed by a list of measures that should be acted upon quickly. Labour must fight for council housing in the here and now, both existing stock and new build.

Even the Tories in the Local Government Association have called for a return to large-scale council housebuilding, demanding 100,000 social rent homes a year. The conference motion called for 150,000 social rent homes a year, of which 100,000 should be council. This cannot happen without a central government grant at least at the level of the £10bn a year that Labour pledged in 2019. Similar funding for 50,000 social rent housing association homes would require £5bn more. Labour should be demanding that the government provides the grant for building social rent homes now.

The latest conference motion also called for a review of “council housing debt to address underfunding of housing revenue accounts”. This underfunding means councils have insufficient resources to maintain and renew existing stock, threatening deterioration of the standard of homes and the living conditions of tenants.

The government has the power under the 2011 Localism Act to review the debt settlement of 2012. A new finance system loaded up councils with an extra £13bn bogus debt. We believe that there is a good case for debt cancellation, which would provide councils with at least an extra £1.25bn a year. Labour should be demanding a review because the amount of ‘debt’ councils were given was based on estimates of rental income, which are out of sync with what they are actually collecting.

On existing council housing, the motion stated: “People in this country should be able to live in a council property that is properly maintained, especially in circumstances where a council tenant has to also pay service charges and is not getting a quality service from that.” In this respect, Labour has to put its own house in order and address councils such as Croydon, where they have allowed tenants to live in the most appalling conditions. That’s a stain on Labour, which must be washed away. We cannot maintain the support of tenants by failing to provide them with decent living conditions.

Labour Campaign for Council Housing member Jayne Kirkham, a Labour group leader, attempted to get Cornwall Council to declare a housing emergency. It refused to even discuss it. She got her town council in Falmouth to declare one instead. One of the reasons for the acute nature of the housing crisis in Cornwall is the growth of second and holiday homes. The conference motion supported the demand for scrapping the tax loophole on second homes and allowing councils to charge a levy on them to be used to provide local social housing.

Picking up on this idea from Cornwall, Labour councils around the country and minority Labour groups should press their councils to declare a housing emergency. As a first step, they should write to the Secretary of State and demand that he acts to end the housing crisis. Labour should be campaigning everywhere, building pressure on the government, and telling the Tories in the LGA: if you are in favour of councils becoming large-scale builders again, don’t rely on private discussions – campaign with us for the government to provide the grant to fund such a programme. Demand that ‘Right to Buy’ is ended.

At the same time, Labour should link up with the trade unions, the new tenants’ unions and the victims of the housing crisis, building a national campaign that demands another government U-turn – this time on funding for existing and new build council housing.

The backbone of the new tenant organisations tends to be a younger generation, some saddled with university debt, most on low wages, in insecure work. They stand no chance of a mortgage. Labour cannot expect to win a general election unless it organises now with this rising generation against conditions in the private rented sector, ending Section 21 evictions, for example. It needs to offer them the prospect of social rent council homes to liberate them from the private rental market or being forced to live with their parents.

If councils were able to build on the scale of 100,000 a year, those households given tenancies would be taken out of the housing market where too many people are chasing scarce properties. This would have the likely effect of dragging prices down in the private rental sector and market homes. Giving people ‘first dibs’ on buying houses they cannot possibly afford is not much help.

As at the 2019 Labour conference, the housing debate this year was impassioned, with speakers who told their personal stories of anxiety at facing eviction from the private rented home, of living in poor conditions and struggling to pay inflated rents. The pandemic has shown once again that poor and insecure housing contributes to ill health and shorter life-spans. There can be no resolution of the crisis without a return to large scale council housebuilding of social rent, zero-carbon homes. There can be no tackling global warming without retro-fitting existing council homes funded by central government, as our motion said.

Below is the full text of the motion passed by Labour conference. 

Housing (composite motion six)

Conference notes that Labour has a longstanding record of positive policies based on respect for human rights, and housing policies aimed at ensuring that everyone can live in a home that is healthy, safe and affordable.

The Grenfell Tower fire and Covid pandemic have now highlighted a lack of investment in public housing, unsafe building practices, and weak legal protection for tenants and leaseholders alike. In addition, we know that the current housing crisis disproportionately affects women, ethnic minorities, young people, and people on lower incomes.

The Covid pandemic has aggravated the severe economic and health impacts of the housing crisis. In December 2020 the Health Foundation identified that prior to the pandemic a third of households in England had housing problems relating to overcrowding, affordability and poor-quality housing.

Prior to the pandemic, thousands of households were struggling with their housing costs in the unaffordable and insecure private rented sector. Due to Covid, many more households are struggling. In Cornwall, the private rented sector is also dramatically shrinking due to second home ownership and as house owners sell up to make the most of the Covid house price bubble or rent as AirBnB/to students.

The lifting of the temporary ban on evictions and ending of the Furlough scheme will make matters worse and lead to a rise in homelessness. The Conservative government has done little to support those struggling to access decent, affordable and secure housing to rent.

Homelessness continues to rise and is expected to accelerate with 1 in 200 people now homeless, while there are more than 200,000 empty homes and over 1.15 million people on social housing waiting lists.

The UK’s provision for the disabled was based on the needs of those who suffered their disabilities from injuries during the two World Wars. However, changes in the demography and needs of the disabled over the last 80 years, including those that become disabled in later life, have led to a significant gap in the provision of housing.

Factors affecting this include:

  • A reduction in the proportion of council housing
  • Our NHS enabling a greater number of disabled people to live long and valuable lives
  • The design, standards, and density of modern houses.

Houses are often compact, ill designed to accommodate wheelchairs, and two storeys. The adaption of such houses takes a very long time to be completed; typically, more than a year, and is costly. These adaptions are removed when the houses are no longer needed for the disabled. Some councils do have houses specially adapted for families with disabled members but have no provision for single disabled or couples.

Conference believes:

  • The UK housing market is broken.
  • The Conservative government has done little to support those struggling to access decent, affordable and secure housing to rent.
  • The UK has obligations under international law to ensure that everyone enjoys the human right to housing that is affordable, accessible, habitable, secure and culturally appropriate, without discrimination. Unfortunately, while the 1998 Human Rights Act protects rights such as free speech, it does not explicitly guarantee the right to adequate housing. Setting this right into legislation would help to eradicate homelessness, and could avert housing problems for people in all tenures.
  • The very large number of second/holiday homes in Cornwall and similar areas, has greatly increased the level of housing insecurity and household impoverishment linked to housing unaffordability.
    • Local economies suffer when so many local households are left with little disposable income after meeting their housing costs.
    • Many families with young children are finding that reliance on insecure, expensive and often low quality private rentals, is a permanent condition rather than a transitional phase in their lives.
    • The impact on housing availability of second/holiday homes is felt not only in areas popular with visitors but in places to which the residents of visitor orientated areas are forced to move.
  • Local authorities should have powers to compulsorily purchase development land that is being ‘land-banked’ and not developed by the landowner.
  • There is now a clear need for the building of houses designed specifically for the disabled and reserved solely for such people.
  • People in this country should be able to live in a council property that is properly maintained, especially in circumstances where a council tenant has to also pay service charges and is not getting a quality service from that. From cutbacks to making the service about targets; we are not figures but human beings.
  • Many experiencing homelessness are denied support because of ‘priority need’ rules or having ‘no recourse to public funds’.

Conference calls on the Labour Party to demand that the government takes action now to end the housing crisis by:

  • Fully funding councils to deliver the building of 150,000 social rent homes each year, including 100,000 council homes.
  • Enshrine the right to adequate housing in domestic law, to ensure that future Governments respect, protect and fulfil the human right to adequate housing.
  • Repeal the 2012 anti-squatting legislation, the Vagrancy Act and all legislation that criminalises being homeless.
  • End the use of anti-social behaviour legislation against begging and rough sleeping.
  • Scrapping the tax loophole on second homes and allowing councils to charge a levy on second homes to be used to provide local social housing.
  • Giving local Councils additional planning powers in the form of change of use restrictions to restrict the number of second/holiday homes in areas where they are eroding the sustainability of local communities.
  • End ‘Right to Buy’.
  • End homelessness by implementing a national ‘housing-first’ system with floating support, to house all those experiencing homelessness regardless of immigration status.
  • Reviewing council housing debt to address underfunding of housing revenue accounts.
  • Ending section 21 (‘no fault’) evictions.
  • Commit to strengthening tenants’ rights
  • Commit to giving local authorities powers to compulsorily purchase development land that is being ‘land-banked’ and not developed by the landowner.
  • Fund the retro-fitting of council housing to cut greenhouse gases, provide jobs and promote a shift from outsourcing to Direct Labour Organisations.
  • Build disability housing and in the meantime encourage local councils to include houses specifically designed for single occupation or couples. This should, in the short term, include private developments.

Conference also calls upon Labour to place these actions at the centre of its housing policies.

Labour Housing Group
St Ives CLP

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