2018 IS CRUCIAL FOR THE FUTURE OF HOUSING. But we say that every year and the problem just gets worse. The gap between political action and public concern is a classic example of the democratic deficit.
This crisis-ridden government has run out of ideas. Its flagship Housing and Planning Act, passed in May 2016, has disintegrated. Its vaunted White Paper of September 2017 contained nothing new. With astonishing intransigence, in the last budget it announced up to £44 billion of subsidies to the failed private market, with not a single commitment to the non-market rented homes millions desperately need. If we were in any doubt that the Tories want to turn back the housing clock, it was dispelled when the leader of Windsor council invoked the 1824 Vagrancy Act as a response to homelessness!
The housing policy void is wide open for Labour to fill.
Demands for change will continue to grow in 2018. Around the country, scores of local campaigns are resisting rent hikes, demolition and displacement. In several places, hyper-exploited private tenants are getting organised. The practice of social cleansing under the guise of regeneration schemes (sometimes, shamefully, perpetrated by Labour councils) has been exposed. In Haringey, the issue has become part of a wider struggle for the future of the Labour Party. This year, calls for a ballot of residents before homes and communities are demolished will get louder.
Overshadowing all this is Grenfell. The contemptuous attitude to council tenants that led to the disaster is continuing in its aftermath, including the inquiry which increasingly looks like an establishment whitewash. The whole labour movement has a responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen and that there’s real Justice for Grenfell.
In the year ahead, Brexit will be the media obsession and the insoluble problem the Tories can’t get away from. But for working class people, it’s the NHS, education and housing that really matter. Labour needs to shift the argument away from undue emphasis on Brexit and from racist scapegoating to the fight for decent public services for all.
To do that on housing (and on other issues) the Party needs to sharpen the debate. There are still too many signs of equivocation and failure to learn from past mistakes. There’s a particular myopia when it comes to housing associations (HAs). Many of these so-called “social landlords” have become indistinguishable from private property developers, as exemplified by Genesis HA. According to their 2016-17 annual report, they made a ‘surplus’ (ie. profit) of £25 million, have over £800 million in the bank and paid their chief executive £240,000 per annum. The most damning indictment is that during the year Genesis completed 195 homes, of which only three were for social rent!
Meanwhile, I know a case where they’re charging £340 a week for a damp, one bedroom flat to a homeless family. Now they want to adopt an even more corporate approach by merging with Notting Hill Housing Group, in the face of a strong tenants’ campaign saying No.
But Labour has failed to fully acknowledge the faults of HAs. Instead of making a clear statement about investing in council housing as the only form of genuinely affordable rented homes, the shadow housing minister, John Healey, has launched yet another consultation exercise. It may be apocryphal, but there’s a story of a homeless person building a shelter from all the reports we’ve had into the housing crisis. We don’t need another report. We need action.
Alongside policy waffle is a reluctance to exploit the government’s weakness by leading the kind of national campaign movement that could force it from office. There’s a growing sense that everything is being pinned on a general election in 2022. Four more years is enough time to do even more damage to working class communities - especially through Universal Credit - and make salvaging what’s left of our welfare state even harder.
Twelve months ago, I wrote this in Labour Briefing: “Public opinion is now firmly shifting towards the need to restore council housing to the policy mainstream, control private landlords and curb property speculators... Housing remains a political gift-horse the Labour Party is looking in the mouth.”
A year later, it’s even more true and the stakes are even higher
Unite Housing Workers branch and Defend Council Housing (personal capacity)