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Labour Needs a Radical Housing Policy

Young Labour's motion to this weekend's conference aims to bring party policy in line with the scale of Britain's housing crisis.

Britain is in the midst of a housing crisis. Thousands of people across the country are at the mercy of the private rental sector, stuck in poor quality housing and on short term tenancies. This is a crisis of our generation, caused by the private sector, deregulation and a lack of state intervention. 

2019 marks the centenary of the Addison Act, legislation which kick-started the large-scale delivery of council housing in the UK for the first time. One hundred years later Britain’s renters are spending an average of 42% of their household income on rent. It’s time for Labour to develop radical solutions to match the scale of this crisis. 

Labour’s 2017 manifesto made a start by accepting the principle that the state should play a role, breaking the orthodoxy which guided the policy of both the Tories and New Labour. But our proposals – and those that featured in the subsequent green paper — were tepid and lacked detail in key areas. To push the party forward in anticipation of a general election, Young Labour has submitted a motion to Annual Conference which begins this weekend. If passed, it will commit the party to radical state intervention in the housing market. 

Successive governments have failed to take this step. The most recent Labour governments missed a huge opportunity to make a break with Thatcherite logic imbued in housing policy. Instead, Labour stood by, enabling the huge expansion of buy-to-let mortgages (first rolled out in 1996) which has led to an explosion in the private rental sector and over-inflated house prices.  

Simultaneously, New Labour failed to reverse right-to-buy, and prevented councils from borrowing money to build and maintain the housing stock, forcing them to sell more homes than they can afford to build. This meant many councils transferred stock outside of direct council control into Housing Associations or ALMOs to obtain access to borrowing for maintenance and repairs. 

The failure to maintain existing social housing stock in public ownership or to build new social housing led to a dramatic reduction in the UK’s social housing stock, which has plummeted from nearly 6.5 million units in 1979 to around 2 million units in 2017.

This, in turn, led to a massive reliance on the private sector, which saw rents skyrocket and landlords increasingly able to pawn off any property to desperate tenants regardless of quality. This is the nature of the market: with more and more people forced to compete in the private sector, costs continue to rise while incentives to maintain quality decline.

The housing crisis has been particularly hard on young people. Those priced out of renting can’t access council housing either and are forced to rely on family. Figures show that 3.4 million people between the ages of 20 to 34 live at their parents’ homes, an increase of 1 million in 20 years and a quarter of all people in this age bracket.  

Meanwhile, homelessness figures have exploded in recent years. Even the alarming figures we see in the press are likely to underestimate the problem, failing to capture those experiencing “hidden” homelessness. We have more than a million people on social housing waiting lists, with a generation of children growing up in temporary accommodation.

Average rents have skyrocketed by 19% in the last decade and it’s clear that there has been a failure to deliver genuinely affordable homes to those who most need them. The answer to this scandal, caused by the dominance of the market, is state intervention — to cap rents and invest in publicly-owned housing. 

Labour’s 2017 manifesto did move in this direction, calling for 1 million new homes over the 5 year term and 100,000 council and Housing Association homes to be built per year by the end of the first term in government. 

The manifesto also put forward a cap on rent increases to the rate of inflation, proposed making right-to-buy conditional on councils having a one-for-one replacement plan and promised to secure an 4,000 additional homes for those with a history of homelessness and rough-sleeping. This policy is a massive step forward, but not enough.

In January 2019 housing charity Shelter published a report called Building for Our Future: A Vision for Social Housing. It called for 3.1 million additional council homes to be built over the next 20 years to tackle the housing crisis, a policy far more radical than Labour’s manifesto pledges and branded a “wake-up call for Labour.”

Young Labour’s motion aims to bring party policy in line with the ambition expressed in Shelter’s report—and to go further. We call on the next Labour government to enable councils to directly construct a minimum of 3.1 million additional social homes, but also want the government to invest in the construction industry to equip young people with good-quality, secure and unionised jobs to build these homes, giving councils the power to build directly and ending the reliance on blacklisting private companies.

Furthermore, we propose not just curbing right-to-buy, as per the last Labour manifesto, but bringing an end altogether to this Thatcherite policy which has done so much damage to our social fabric. This would reprioritise the public agenda in housing, paving the way for a society in which housing is no longer viewed as a speculative asset. 

Young Labour also proposes to give councils the power to move housing association stock under direct council control. Housing associations increasingly act like private companies, with management paid accordingly, and since 2015 their rents have been clearly divergent from those of local authorities. This move would correct the damage New Labour did to social housing when it forced council housing out of direct council control to keep maintenance expenditure off of councils’ books.

Our plans to extend council powers don’t end there. We propose that councils should have more powers to seize empty homes and buy private land. These measures will stop homes lying empty and developers land banking, or buying ransom plots.

But house building isn’t going to solve all of our problems. That’s why we are demanding the next Labour government tackle the broken private rental market by introducing rent controls. 

Our motion moves beyond Labour’s 2017 policy of limiting increases and instead proposes to link rents to average local incomes. That is what genuine affordability means. 

Alongside this we want a devolution of enforcing standards in the private rental sector to local councils to give them the power to prosecute landlords in cases of low-quality or overcrowded housing. We also propose to give renters open-ended tenancies and a ‘Tenants’ Rights Charter’ enshrined in national legislation and enforced by an independent watchdog. 

If passed, our motion to this year’s Labour Party conference would be a serious proposal to tackle the scale of Britain’s housing crisis. The generation that Young Labour represents needs radical change—otherwise a lack of decent, affordable housing will blight our lives for decades to come.

Young Labour is clear: the housing crisis cannot be solved through the private sector. As a party we can’t have it both ways. Either we pursue a housing policy based on investor speculation, or we accept that housing is a human right and policy should be focused on housing people on the basis of need. 

If you support the latter, please vote for our motion at party conference this weekend!