THE NATIONAL SUMMIT OF THE ‘AXE THE HOUSING ACT’ campaign on 22nd October was big, broad and determined. About 250 people from all over the country took part in a day of lively, open discussion about how to stop the ill-considered Tory legislation that threatens to make the housing crisis worse and cause irreparable damage to working class communities. This is also a political act, designed to undermine the Labour Party. So it’s very surprising that no one from the Shadow Cabinet accepted the invitation to attend the summit, or even sent a message of support.
It is, however, a strength of the campaign that it’s resolutely rank-andfile and tenant-led. The first speaker was Janice Sweeney, a council tenant and teaching assistant from Kensington and Chelsea drawn into political activity for the first time because she is, as she put it, “not prepared to be blamed for the housing mess created by governments and property speculators.” Janice is threatened by ‘Pay to Stay’ – or what she more accurately calls ‘The Tenant Tax’ – which, if the Tories get their way, could push her rent up to ‘market, or near market’ levels, in the borough with the most expensive housing in the country. Like many others, Janice is also worried about where her children and grandchildren will live if, as the Act intends, councils are compelled to sell off their ‘high value’ homes as they become empty. This, combined with the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants, is why the Chartered Institute of Housing is predicting the loss of 360,000 social rented homes by 2020, at a time when there are 1.5 million households on waiting lists and many more consigned to sub-standard, super-exploitative private renting because there’s no alternative.
The summit spent a lot of time debating the critical role of local councils which the government is expecting to implement legislation that will only damage them and their constituencies. The newly elected Mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville, who has been active in the campaign from the start, repeated his opposition to the Act and reported on efforts by Labour controlled London councils to co-ordinate resistance. Councillor Gary Heather from Islington, where the council has shown strong support for the campaign against the Act, including holding a public meeting attended by 600 people, told the summit that his colleague Diarmaid Ward (Chair of Housing) is undertaking a tour of tenant and resident associations in the borough to inform residents about the new law many are still unaware of. But there was a strong sense that other Labour councils are not showing similar leadership on the issue – and may eventually pay the political price. Despite this, the clamour against the Act is growing. Half of all London boroughs were represented at the summit, alongside people from 20 areas outside the M25, which is vital because this is a national issue.
The meeting also received a statement initiated by the Bishop of Stepney calling on the government to “think again” and signed by 22 other faith leaders and organisations, including the Muslim Council of Britain, the UK Hindu Council and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Southwark. Guy Shennan, chair of the British Association of Social Workers, also addressed the summit and brought the support of his organisation, as did Heather Wakefield from Unison and Paul Kershaw from the Unite housing workers branch.
However, although many of those involved in Axe the Housing Act (which is non-party political) are Labour Party members, the Party as a whole is not doing enough to support the campaign and there is a worrying silence in some quarters. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, despite all the pressures they’re under, have repeatedly and publicly condemned the Act and Labour Conference passed a motion committing to fighting it. But the newly installed shadow team needs to raise its game and be clear that a Labour government would repeal it, a message Sadiq Khan should echo. Perhaps most surprising – and worrying – is that Momentum has apparently failed to recognise and act on an important opportunity to connect with working class communities on an issue that has huge potential to attract potential Labour voters.
Unite Housing Workers branch and Defend Council Housing (personal capacity)