THE HOUSING WHITE PAPER, unveiled on 7th February, is called Fixing our broken housing market. It will do nothing of the kind, but the title is significant. Finally, the government acknowledges that there’s a national housing crisis, but it can only see the solution through the same market fixation that caused it. The 100-page document is a tired collection of retreads, policy clichés and half measures. Taken together with the shambolic 2016 Housing and Planning Act, it’s clear the Tories haven’t got a clue. Now is the time for the labour movement to unite around a campaign based on detaching the market from a vital social asset.
There’s another important admission in the White Paper. It explicitly states that the housing crisis is not the result of the country being ‘full’, exposing the racist lie that we don’t have enough homes because of immigration. But beyond that, the government is threatening more legislation to entrench the domination of private interests over housing provision.
Alongside a number of U-turns on the 2016 Act, before Christmas housing minister Gavin Barwell conceded the government won’t meet its target of one million new homes by 2020. The White Paper casts around for someone else to blame for this failure, particularly the planning system, an excuse that’s been trotted out for decades. There are certainly ways planning could be improved, but the White Paper doesn’t provide any. Instead, the government suggests it’s local councils, not profit-driven developers, which are failing to build the homes we require.
It’s true that councils have been ignoring housing needs for too long, some because they’re NIMBYs, others because they’ve been seduced by false claims that the market can be tamed. But the real reason is that housing has been starved of investment. Here though, there’s a glimmer of hope. After decades of attempts, by governments of both parties, to destroy municipal housing, the White Paper opens the door for councils to build again.
There’s no commitment to significant funding to do this, so no chance we’ll see the hundreds of thousands of decent, secure, affordable homes that are the only way to restore some sanity to the housing situation. There’s also the remaining uncertainty from the 2016 Act which required councils to sell-off ‘high value’ homes as they become empty. But the recognition, by a Tory government, that council housing is back on the agenda is a victory for those who’ve campaigned for it for years and should be a spur to the Labour Party.
Further evidence of chaotic thinking and susceptibility to pressure is the back-tracking on starter homes. Last year the government was seeing them as an alternative to social rented homes on new developments and a way of reversing the decline of home ownership. This year they’ve conceded that, even with generous state subsidies, they’re unaffordable to most and councils can reduce them to a small proportion of new homes. However, the White Paper is silent on other damaging aspects of the 2016 Act, particularly the intention to end secure tenancies, introduce means-testing as a mechanism for rent rises and further erode the rights of gypsies and travellers.
The Act remains a threat and it looks increasingly like the Tories are seeing housing associations (HAs) as the agents for delivering it. The White Paper intends to confirm that HAs are part of the private sector. This will serve the dual purpose of enabling them to borrow more money without it impinging on public finances, while encouraging the aggressive commercial culture that many HAs already pursue, including attacking workers’ pay and conditions, and targeting unions. The new legislation also promises something HAs have been lobbying for - the freedom to ramp up rents, something they will see as part of the mitigation for losing homes through the extension of the Right to Buy to their tenants. Another consequence of our lop-sided housing policy has been the exponential rise of the private landlord. For many tenants, this represents a source of massive exploitation. For the government it’s a business opportunity. The White Paper confirms the aim of attracting institutional investment to private renting, while offering nothing to improve security and affordability for private tenants.
The government’s muddled thinking defaults to the ideological obsession with home ownership. Labour must avoid the same trap. The White Paper will only perpetuate the crisis by tinkering with it.
Labour should lead a national campaign to rebalance our housing policy through long-term, planned investment in council housing and other alternatives to the tyranny of the dysfunctional market.
Unite Housing Workers branch and Defend Council Housing (personal capacity)