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The Landlord Subsidy

Under Margaret Thatcher, the Tories saw housing benefit as a way to prop up private landlords – and today, it does so the tune of billions of pounds per year. It's time to build public housing instead.

The history goes back to at least 1895, when a Tory MP ran in Bethnal Green on a platform blaming Jewish immigrants, many fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, for increased rents and poor housing conditions in the area. (Richard Newstead / Getty Images)

With all the other things happening around Parliament, not much attention was paid to a report published on 10 January by the House of Lords Built Environment Committee on ‘Meeting Housing Demand’.

Although it’s a product of the usual establishment suspects, the 108 pages are a politely worded condemnation of decades of UK housing policy. If there was failure on this scale in any other field of government responsibility, there would be outrage. But the idea that the housing problem is insoluble has become widely ingrained and acts as another tool for those who have no intention of solving it.

One finding that did, quite rightly, receive some media attention was the committee’s criticism of the Tory government’s Help to Buy scheme. At a projected cost of £29 billion, this ideologically driven initiative dwarfs other state spending on housing. But as the report confirmed, it has only served to inflate already exorbitant house prices and in so doing fatten the profits of private developers, while millions suffer housing misery. The committee concludes ‘funding for home ownership schemes do not provide good value for money’. Instead, it recommends investment to increase the supply of homes affordable to those most in need.

Another nonsense highlighted by the Lords is the £23.4 billion a year spent on benefits to enable tenants to pay rents they couldn’t otherwise afford, even when most of them are in work. Given the situation neoliberal housing policy has created, this money is essential to keep people in their homes, but results from an entirely deliberate policy. When asked in parliament about rising rents in 1991, Thatcherite Housing Minister George Young said: ‘Housing Benefit will underpin market rents… we have made that absolutely clear, if people cannot afford to pay that market rent, housing benefit will take the strain.’

In the same debate, one Jeremy Corbyn strongly criticised government under-investment in and deregulation of the housing system, which, among other things, was making housing associations (HAs) more reliant on private finance. This shift set in train the increasingly corporate culture of HAs who, the Lords report notes, built 57,600 new homes in 2019/2020, of which only 11 percent were for social rent (approximately half the market rate), while 47 percent were for misnomered ‘affordable rent’, at 80 percent of the market level.

Scandalously, in 50 local authority areas, there were no homes for social rent built between 2015 and 2020. By comparison, during the four decades after World War II, local authorities always built at least 110,000 new council homes a year.

Instead of continuing to allow Housing Benefit to ‘take the strain’, the Lords recommend: ‘A transition to spending more on the social housing stock… and meet[ing] the most critical needs’. As the GMB union has rightly argued, ‘A change of policy to shift away from housing benefits to direct provision of council housing is long overdue. It will save money in the long run too.’ The whole labour movement, including the leadership of the Labour Party, must back this call and actively campaign for it. The Lords’ report also recommends that the Right to Buy is reformed to allow councils to keep more of the receipts that can then be used to replenish the stock.

George Young was quite an unusual Housing Minister because he stayed in post for four years. Another symptom of policy failure identified by the Lords’ report is the revolving door of politicians taking the job: 17 between 2001 and 2021. Tony Benn once told me that when he was in the post-war cabinet, every meeting started with a report on housing, a Ministerial portfolio combined with health, in the inspirational form of Aneurin Bevan. Now, more than ever, that’s the level of seriousness the twin issues should be treated with, not as a careerist stepping-stone.

There are some old saws in the Lords report that have been repeated ad nauseum in the numerous investigations into why successive UK governments have failed so badly on housing, including an obsession with identifying the planning system as the source of the problem because it supposedly ‘blocks’ development. This is a chimera. Planning certainly needs reform, to make it more democratically accountable. But as the Local Government Association points out, 1.1 million homes that have received planning permission in the last decade have not been built. This reflects the real problem with the planning regime: it is controlled, not by local people or elected councillors, but by private property developers who have no interest in solving the housing crisis because they profit from it.

The need for reform and transparency also applies to ‘planning gain’, whereby developers pay councils money as part of a quid pro quo for planning permission. The Lords committee says these Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy agreements were valued at £7 billion in 2018/19. The money has become a significant source of funding for new homes, but it only goes to housing associations, who aren’t building the homes we really need, when it could be used for new council housing.

The report makes only passing reference to the potential to use public land which, as the New Economics Foundation has chronicled, is currently being squandered. It also fails to address the institutional racism that is embedded within market-driven housing policy, particularly in relation to the multiple displacement effects of urban regeneration projects, about which the Lords say nothing. This is probably unsurprising given that, from a long list of ‘expert’ witnesses they heard from, there is none representing the views of tenants.

But the report does provide ample evidence to nail the lie that there is no money for housing. Even with its shortcomings, there are billions available within the existing system, but it’s being misspent. It’s time for the Left to lead a pushback against the false descriptions of ‘subsidised housing’. It’s not council housing or people on benefits that are subsidised, it’s the private market and the property industry. As John Perry, senior policy advisor to the Chartered Institute of Housing, states, 79 percent of state spending on housing goes to subsidising the dysfunctional housing market, which causes huge social damage, at enormous knock-on public cost.

In these volatile times, one thing is certain: the housing crisis for working-class people isn’t going away and if anything, will get worse. Only a fundamental rethink of the place of housing in our society will change that. But that won’t come about through yet another worthy report.

There’s a perhaps apocryphal story of someone building a shelter from all the reports that have been written about the housing crisis. During the pandemic, pressure from below has challenged capitalist private property norms. Things we’ve been told were impossible, like housing the homeless in hotels or suspending evictions, have happened. Now, with a UK government under extreme political pressure, is the time to build and unite grassroots housing campaigns and demand real change.