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The Right to Housing

In this election, Labour can turn the entire debate about housing upside down. It must not miss that chance.

When it comes to housing, Labour has a record to be proud of. Practically every advance in building decent housing for the majority of people is owed to the Labour movement. From the spacious cottage estates built as a result of the Wheatley Act in 1924, to the housing programmes that ‘built the Tories out of London’ in the interwar years, to the massive post-war projects for New Towns and visionary housing estates, right up to the experiments in self-building and co-operatives in the 1980s – all of these were the result of Labour governments and Labour local authorities. As the UN’s rapporteur on housing Raquel Rolnik pointed out, by the end of the 1970s Britain was one of several northern European countries to have basically solved its housing crisis. We did it before, and we can do it again. 

But we need to be honest – the record of the last Labour governments in housing was poor: the ‘property-owning democracy’ built by Thatcher was expanded, not reformed; the inflation of house prices and rents became ludicrous; council housing was not restarted; and the existing stock was offloaded onto Housing Associations. Yes, some of the worst aspects of Thatcherism were either restrained – with many councils permitted to rescind or slow down Right to Buy – or nearly eliminated altogether, with homelessness massively reduced. But both of these policies were abandoned by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, with results you can see in the tent cities that are to be found in almost every town and city in the country. Even so, the mess we’re in now owes a lot to the Blair and Brown governments’ reliance on an asset bubble and on a belief that, in Hazel Blears’ words, councils couldn’t be relied upon to ‘wash the pots,’ let alone plan cities and build housing. Because of that, we need a decisive break, and we need it fast.

The first and most obvious point is that we need council housing. This was accepted under Ed Miliband, and it is now consensus across the Party – a real advance on the 1990s and 2000s. The recent slight revival in council building shows what is possible, with the new Goldsmith Street estate in Norwich deservedly winning this year’s Stirling Prize for best building. But why limit municipalisation to new housing? We still have a lot of empty housing, and enormous council waiting lists, and councils often lack the expertise they once had. In the long run, that can be built back up, but for now, why not, as London councils did in the 1970s and 1980s, municipalise existing property? In places like London, Bristol, Manchester and Oxford, we face a problem of under-supply, and need to build more – a lot more. But elsewhere, the problem of housing is unevenness, with big Victorian houses rotting across the north that would sell for millions in London; ‘beds in sheds’ in Peckham or Walthamstow, and single professionals having three-bedroom houses all to themselves in Sheffield. Housing, like everything else, is in serious need of redistribution. Moreover, in terms of taking housing out of the market and allocating it on the basis of need rather than profit, municipalistion makes much more sense than a ‘private Right to Buy‘ – an attention-grabbing but vacuous idea only mildly more progressive than the public Right to Buy. Instead of expanding Right to Buy, we need to abolish it, as the Scottish Parliament did some time ago.

Most of the social housing built since the 1990s has been built by Housing Associations, bodies somewhere between charities, developers and quangos. They have much useful expertise in building good, solid and imaginative housing, and have existed for around 150 years. However, typically, New Labour decided they were better at achieving social goals than democratic public bodies like councils, and decided to replace council housing with Housing Association housing. In some cities, like Glasgow, enormous and unaccountable Housing Associations were formed at one stroke under government pressure. Young Labour’s recent resolution on housing, accepted at conference, argues for the municipal takeover of Housing Associations, and in many cases this is only taking back what was once part of the local authority anyway. This is the case with London Housing Associations like Poplar HARCA, who recently cleared Balfron Tower of its tenants to sell off as luxury flats, but who were partly formed out of Newham’s old housing department. The larger Housing Associations like Peabody are effectively developers today, and their business model involves building expensive private housing to subsidise their social activities – a sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The return to council building seen in some cities and boroughs is to be applauded, but it has major limitations. Councils have proven over the last few years, in London and in Norwich, that they can build warmer, more attractive, more eco-friendly and more civic housing than the developers. But under austerity, this has too often been the result of complex land deals and a weird form of social offsetting. Southwark Council, for instance, rightly boast of their innovative council housing programme, but at current rates, it will take decades for them to make up the shortfall of council housing caused by ‘estate regeneration’ programmes in the borough, which have largely benefitted developers. This is mostly not because councillors are all ruthless neoliberals, but because of the enormous price of urban land, which makes it much more ‘cost-effective’ for councils to sell off and demolish their housing and then rebuild more densely on other sites. This is socially disruptive, ecologically wasteful and it does nothing for the thousands upon thousands of people on waiting lists. Hackney’s Colville Estate is a case in point – previous tenants now have excellent new houses, but paying for it are £1 million penthouses, which immediately raise the ‘rent gap’ sharply, making the amount a private landlord can charge in the area much higher. It needs to be said that the growth model that most local authorities are attached to – where attracting richer incomers and higher business rates subsidises a trickle of social projects – is broken. It is not solving the housing crisis, and it cannot. Following Paul Dennett’s recent proposals, we need major changes to how councils are funded, and how they collect their taxes, as this trickle-down economics is patently bankrupt.

Rather than trying to eliminate private renting via encouraging richer renters to buy their homes from their landlords, we need to ask much deeper questions about renting. As in the USA, British media likes to make out that we are some uniquely property-fixated country, where renting has never been popular, and where most people own their own homes (accordingly, many Tories privately admit that the sharp rise in renting is a problem for their electoral appeal, although landlords remain a Tory bulwark). But the fact is, relatively to the rest of Europe, a similar amount of people rent here to most comparable countries. The difference is the social stigma, and much more importantly, the fact that tenants have the most minimal rights of any rich country in the world. The hated Assured Shorthold Tenancy has to go, and ‘no-fault eviction’ has to go along with it. Councils and landlords should be forced to recognise Renters Unions, and most importantly, tenancies in the private sector should be made as secure as they are in the public. First steps to this could include adopting the sort of systems of strict rent control that exist in Germany – where Berlin is now bringing in a rent freeze – or the 3-6-9 tenancy system that exists in Belgium, where the standard contract is for nine years, and the rent can only be raised every three years. Again, as in Germany, any private rental property that is sold must come with its tenants alongside. These policies are accepted even by Conservative parties in these countries, and should be the least that a Social Democrat should expect.

One of the hardest aspects of British planning and housing to explain to people is our labyrinthine, needlessly complex system of contracting. Our building sector is a paradise for property lawyers. The amount of different contractors it took to coat Grenfell Tower in lethally flammable plastic was more than it takes to build an entire high-speed railway line in Spain. Cowboy companies both large and small are given carte blanche by a system that cares more about spreading risk around than about ensuring quality and safety. And while the disaster of Grenfell – which will stand with Hillsborough or Aberfan as one of the worst, and most easily preventable, peacetime disasters in this country’s history – is on Kensington and Chelsea, and on the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s ‘bonfire of red tape’, we need to be honest. Hundreds of towers were clad with flammable material in the last 15 years, and councils such as Salford have had to remove it from their tower blocks at enormous expense. The entire moronic system of PFI, ‘best value,’ compulsory tendering and ‘value engineering’ needs to go; and we need only look to countries as close as France and Spain to see places that build better housing and better infrastructure without any need for any of these.

We also have to be clear what we risk in these policies. When the Daily Express and the Daily Mail inform its asset-holding readers about every fluctuation in house prices on their front pages, we know we’re dealing with a kind of ‘popular capitalism’ – but it is one concentrated overwhelmingly among those people who were able to buy cheap in the 1980s and 1990s and sell high thereafter, and by now it excludes an overwhelming majority of people under 50. Even many of the people who own do so because of low pensions and fears for the future – that is, they own because it offers security. The price of this is that nobody else gets to have that security. As Raquel Rolnik points out, the UN once declared housing a universal human right. We were a pioneer in establishing that right, and in 1979, in rescinding it and turning it into an asset, held by a few. We have a chance now to be the first country to give people that right back. We can’t miss it.