On 13 March, 10,000 people demonstrated against the Housing and Planning Bill. Alongside a growing national network of local opposition, with meetings attended by hundreds, this represents the biggest mobilisation against government legislation for a generation. Comparisons with the Poll Tax and the Housing Finance Act of the early 1970s are not hyperbole. The Housing Bill is an existential threat not just to council housing, but to any form of non-profit housing. It will exacerbate the housing crisis and deepen the social divisions that even Tories are now identifying as a feature of government policy. As the Bill nears the end of its parliamentary passage, the role of the Labour Party in general, and Labour councils in particular, becomes critical.
Jeremy Corbyn and the party leadership have been unequivocal in their opposition to the Bill. At the rally on 13 March, John McDonnell said a future Labour government would repeal it. But we can’t wait until then. With the Tory government in turmoil, the Labour Party, Momentum and the trade union movement must help build a national campaign that makes the Bill unworkable.
The first thing all Labour councils should do is write to their constituents telling them about the Bill and inviting them to a public meeting to discuss the implications; housing associations should be asked to do the same. That’s already happened in Islington and Camden where vibrant grassroots campaigns have grown. Local councillors and MPs have added their voices, with extensive coverage in local media.
If the Bill becomes law in some form (probably before the parliamentary summer recess) the question of implementation will come to the fore. Tenants in Southwark have agreed a blueprint for how councils can defend the communities they serve.
• Refuse to collect ‘Pay to Stay’ data on tenants’ income. There is nothing in existing tenancy agreements that can legally require them to do so.
• Refuse to sell-off ‘high value’ council homes as they become empty or pay a ‘levy’ to housing associations to subsidise Right to Buy 2. Why should cash-strapped councils pay a gratuity to increase the wealth of cash-rich private businesses?
• Continue to issue permanent Secure Tenancies to new tenants in compliance with existing policies on promoting sustainable and mixed communities.
These aren’t empty gestures – they’re a political responsibility. Nor are they anything to do with setting ‘illegal’ budgets. The Tory government wants Labour councils to do its dirty work and take the political blame. But the Bill offers councils a degree of discretion in how the legislation is implemented. By linking together across borough boundaries and exploring all options, including legal challenges, councils can exploit the government’s weakness and put themselves on the right side of this argument. The Housing Bill raises wider political questions for Labour. It’s an exercise in social cleansing and gerrymandering. Alongside its doomed ideological obsession with private property, the Tories are pursuing a ‘homes for votes’ policy like Dame Shirley Porter’s in Westminster in the 1980s. At its least, opposition to the Bill is enlightened self-interest for Labour, so some in the Party need to be much clearer in setting out an alternative housing vision. Vague statements about ‘affordable’ and ‘social’ housing no longer cut it.
As Jeremy Corbyn said in his first speech as party leader, ‘there is no solution to the housing crisis that doesn’t start with council housing’. All Labour candidates need to explicitly endorse this position and the Party needs to develop ‘spade ready’ policies for putting it into practice. Using public land and money to invest in a new generation of council housing, as part of a more balanced housing and economic policy, is a vote winner. Likewise measures to control rents and improve conditions for private renters.
The national ‘Kill the Bill’ campaign is a non-party political alliance of tenants from all tenures (council, housing association and private), trade unionists, housing advocates and campaigners. It’s growing quickly. Future plans include more local and national demonstrations as part of the essential task of raising awareness about the scale of the threat. The spectres of American ‘projects’, continental ‘banlieues’ and Rachmanism loom ever larger. Labour must commit itself, in practice as well as words, to a better housing future.
• Protest lobby of Parliament, Wednesday 11 May at 12-2pm, meeting Old Palace Yard, followed by lobbying of MPs.
• Second national demonstration, Saturday 18 June.
• For further information contact Glyn at email@example.com
Unite Housing Workers branch and Defend Council Housing (personal capacity)