Why Labour Needs a More Radical Housing Policy

by Jamie Sweeney

3 June 2019

Steve Cadman, Flickr

The Labour Campaign for Council Housing has launched its campaign with the goal of radicalising the party’s housing policy to ensure it effectively tackles the housing crisis in government. 

Housing is the greatest domestic challenge facing our country. Currently, there are  277,000 homeless households, including over 4000 rough sleepers. A staggering one million households are on the housing waiting list. A whole generation of young people have been shut out from home ownership and older people are increasingly getting trapped in the private rented sector too – by 2040, up to one-third of 60 year olds will be renting privately. More people in the private rented sector is bad news for everyone but landlords; rents are higher, conditions are poorer and tenancies are less secure than in the social sector.

Thatcher’s legacy.

The roots of this crisis can be traced back to the Thatcher governments. In the post-war era, governments of all colours accepted the housing policy introduced by Attlee and Bevan, which was to provide investment to councils to build housing. Rents were set at social rents, so they were affordable for all, and tenancies were guaranteed for life to provide security to families living in them. The result was that the country built an average of 125,861 social rented homes a year between 1946-1980.

When Thatcher came to power, her government withdrew grant funding for councils to build housing. Governments that followed failed to reverse Thatcher’s policy resulting in a paltry 27,209 social rented homes built between 1981-2017. Together with the disastrous policy of right-to-buy, which has seen the sale of over 1.8m council homes in England to date, this has caused a severe lack of affordable housing.

And what’s more, it has also meant that supply of housing more generally has plummeted. Between 1946-1980 an average of 247,100 homes were built a year; between 1981-2017 this had fallen to 150,907, with the entire reduction accounted for by the drop in social rented homes built. When the state builds a significant number of homes, this keeps house prices and rents low for everyone by keeping supply high.

We need, then, to get back to the days of building social rented council housing on a mass scale to begin reversing this decades long failure of our housing policy. Housing charity Shelter’s recent ‘A Vision for Social Housing’ report agrees; they conclude that 3.1m new social rented homes need to be built over the next 20 years – an average of 155,000 per year.

Corbyn’s proposal.

The Labour party has come a long way in its housing policy in recent years. As recently as 2015, Labour refused to even mention council housing in its general election manifesto. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the party – on a platform of building 100,000 council homes a year – signalled a significant shift in Labour’s housing priorities. However, this has yet to translate into the transformative policies which would tackle the housing crisis once and for all.

Labour’s Housing for the Many paper committed to building 1m genuinely affordable homes over 10 years, a majority of which will be for social rent – an average of at least 50,000 social rented homes a year, including the biggest council housebuilding programme in nearly forty years. National housing grant investment would be reset to £4bn a year. While this is a step in the right direction, these commitments would not meet the scale of ambition needed to solve our housing crisis.

50,000 social rented homes a year is well short of the 155,000 needed and the council housing commitment only ties the party into building little over 15,000 council homes a year – nowhere near the 100,000 pledged by Corbyn in his leadership campaign. Furthermore, £4bn housing grant per year is unlikely to be enough to deliver even 50,000 social rented homes. On top of all this, the party has only committed to suspending right-to-buy. We should be ending right-to-buy once and for all to preserve our social housing stock and ensure a Conservative government can never bring it back.

A transformative vision.

The Labour Campaign for Council Housing’s demands are simple: Labour should adopt a policy of building 155,000 social rented homes a year. At least 100,000 of those should be council homes, in line with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election commitment. There should be a £10bn grant each year to fund councils to build them; £100,000 per home. And right-to-buy should be ended once and for all.

We have produced a model motion to submit to Labour conference calling for these commitments to be adopted as party policy. We have a huge opportunity to solve the housing crisis in government by building high-quality social rented council housing on a mass scale. Let’s make sure we don’t squander it.

Jamie Sweeney is a Labour member writing on behalf of the Labour Campaign for Council Housing. The campaign can be contacted by emailing [email protected] for those interested in the conference motion or volunteering with the campaign.

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