Martin Wicks

Labour Needs a Housing Policy!

Martin Wicks
Labour Needs a Housing Policy!

SHELTER'S RECENT HOUSING report called for £10.7 billion annually to be invested in 155,000 ‘social housing’ homes, 3.1 million homes over 20 years. John Healey, Labour’s shadow Housing minister, said the report was a wake up call for the Conservatives. It was also a wake up call for Labour. Shelter’s proposal far outstrips Labour’s commitment of £4 billion a year grant for ‘affordable homes’. This was the grant available under New Labour eleven years ago. Moreover this money would not just be for ‘social’ homes but ‘affordable ownership’ as well.

Labour's housing green paper had a fundamental flaw at its heart. Instead of proposing a legal duty on councils to build council housing it proposed a duty to promote ‘affordable housing’, including ‘affordable ownership’. Councils could apply for grants solely to build ‘affordable ownership’ homes - and they could fulfil this duty without building a single council home.

Currently Labour has no commitment to funding a specific number of council homes, nor a guarantee of grants for councils. Those councils that do want to build them will have to compete with housing associations. Labour is committed only to 100,000 ‘affordable homes’ a year for rent and sale by the end of a five year Parliament.

The gulf between the aspirations of Labour Party members and supporters and Labour’s official policy was reflected by the composite resolution passed at last year’s conference in support of 100,000 ‘social rent’ homes a year and an end to Right to Buy (RTB), rather than just suspension. Yet John Healey's office has said that it does not envisage 100,000 ‘social rent’ homes a year being built until the second term in office. Neither has he committed to implementing conference policy to end RTB. He is leaving open the possibility of councils being able to sell their homes again if they have plans to replace the properties sold under RTB on a ‘like for like’ basis.

Frustrated with this situation a Labour Campaign for Council Housing has been launched by party members who want to radicalise Labour's housing policy. The initial focus will be on campaigning to commit Labour to:

» Building 100,000 council homes a year, funded by annual central government grant of £10 billion (£100,000 per property) and

» Ending RTB in line with last year's conference vote.

We share Shelter's ambition for building more than 150,000 homes a year. However, their proposal would mean only £69,000 grant per property and it says nothing about council housing. We believe the main emphasis should be on council housing which gives tenants a more secure tenancy and the possibility of holding their landlord to account. Even when tenants are elected to boards of associations they have a legal duty to the business rather than to other tenants.

In the housing association sector there has been a process of commercialisation which has seen the bigger associations abandon their supposed social purpose and build homes for sale. Their organisation, the National Housing Federation, capitulated to the government over the extension of RTB to the sector. It supported the proposed theft of council RTB receipts from the enforced sale of ‘higher value’ homes (thankfully abandoned).

We believe that any grant for housing associations should only go towards building homes for 'social rent' and not to support commercial activities. It is certainly true that councils would be unable to move immediately from the very small numbers they are currently building to a large scale programme. However, the key to them being able to do so is a guarantee that they will receive grant on an annual basis. Otherwise they will not have the resources needed to plan and execute building 100,000 homes a year.

The acute shortage of council housing resulting from more than 30 years of RTB sales has created an unprecedented crisis. An estimated 40% of council homes sold are now owned by buy-to-let landlords charging much higher private rents. With home ownership beyond the means of millions, and council housing tenancies like gold dust, many people are forced into the private rented sector where rents are extortionate, nearly a third of properties are ‘non-decent’, and there is no security of tenure.

Labour's current policies are completely insufficient to resolve the housing crisis. A large scale council home building programme is the necessary means of beginning to do so. Labour should commit to the funding required to deliver it. There are only 1.59 million council homes left in England. Ending RTB and beginning to build on a large scale can begin to push this number back up for the first time in a generation, offering people genuinely affordable and secure homes.

» The campaign will be circulating a model resolution for Labour's conference this year. To contact us and get involved, email us at: or ring 07786 394593.

South Swindon CLP