Housing - Labour’s dangerous road
IN JUNE’S BRIEFING MARTIN WICKS exposes the ‘fundamental flaw’ in the party’s Housing Green Paper. Not fully committing to council housing is the key weakness, but it goes further. Labour is treading a very dangerous road which risks betraying millions in housing need. There will be a heavy political price if it doesn’t change direction.
The possible shape of things to come can be seen in what Sadiq Khan’s up to in London. His emerging policies reveal an essentially pro-market fixation which fails to acknowledge mistakes of the past. He is also using dishonest political messaging to camouflage what he’s really doing.
On 16th May, Khan announced a plan for 10,000 new “council homes”. This would be very welcome, if true, but it’s a fake claim. He’s actually proposing these new homes would be at rents 50% higher than current council housing, and is also vague on vital questions about ownership and tenancies.
Paul Burnham, a housing campaigner in Haringey, has submitted a resolution to his local Momentum group explaining the duplicity in Khan’s methods, which uses the misleading terms “social” and “affordable” rents to disguise an agenda that will reduce the availability of real council housing.
There’s an irony in all this. Labour’s Green Paper rightly condemns the Tory government’s phoney definitions of “affordable housing”, although not acknowledging that they inherited this practice from the previous Labour government. But Khan’s policies show that Labour is set to replace one discredited definition with another.
The root of this failing, in London and nationally, lies in the refusal of some Labour politicians to recognise that private house builders and housing associations are not going to build the homes we really need. Instead of making an unambiguous commitment to invest directly in council housing, particularly on public land, they’re set to continue trying to beat developers at their own game.
Using a deeply flawed planning system and appealing to the public spirit of private business hasn’t worked. Labour’s Green Paper correctly says that it’s not just about how much housing we build, but what type. In my borough, Tower Hamlets, there’ve been more new homes built in the last few years than anywhere else in Europe. If negotiating with developers brought positive results, we should have seen a reduction in local housing need. But the number of families on the waiting list - around 20,000 - has stayed the same.
Khan implies he can cut a deal with developers to solve the housing crisis and Labour’s Green Paper is following suit. While saying some of the right things, it anticipates spreading a relatively small amount of public money - £4 billion - too thinly across increasingly complicated policies. This approach is imported from the US, where fragmented and divisive housing investment means money doesn’t go where it’s needed most.
Part of the reason for this is a political miscalculation. Some Labour politicians seem to think it's not possible to have a progressive housing policy without threatening the holy cow of private home ownership. They're wrong. Housing need is now mainstream. It needs a mainstream, unifying solution, not one based on slicing and dicing provision.
The error of Labour’s current thinking is exemplified by the issue of public land. Alison McGarry (Briefing, June 2018) refers to the Holloway Women’s Prison site in north London, where there’s enough publicly owned land for at least 400 council homes, as well as a women’s centre and other community facilities. Instead, the Tory government is flogging the land to a private developer.
Sadiq Khan could have tried to stop that by bidding for the site, but sat on his hands. The local council, Islington, is hoping a robust planning mechanism will ensure the new, profit-driven owners will deliver genuine social benefits, including truly affordable homes. Experience suggests otherwise.
Ultimately, we can’t control what we don’t own. Even Jeremy Corbyn, the local MP, hasn’t been as vocal on the issue as he could have been and Labour’s Green Paper doesn’t hold out much hope of better in the future. As with other parts of the document, its position on public land is woolly and equivocal.
The New Economics Foundation estimates there are 2,000 publicly-owned sites around the country where 200,000 truly affordable homes could be built, saving an estimated £25 billion in housing benefit. If the Labour Party can’t commit to building real council housing on public land, where can it?
Such questions play on the mind of the electorate. They see a massive problem to which politicians appear to have no answer. Labour’s lack of a convincing vision to solve the housing crisis has cost it votes in the past and will continue to do so unless or until it stops trying to dance with the devil. The housing market is broken. Council housing works because it takes homes out of the market and keeps the market out of people’s homes.
Jeremy Corbyn’s introduction to the Green Paper quite rightly identifies Grenfell Tower as the symbol of our housing policy failure. But the Moore- Bick inquiry appears unlikely to identify the real cause, which is allowing our homes and communities to become lucrative sources of profit for big business. Labour is accurately responding to the public mood by saying we need to stop treating housing as a private commodity and instead see it as a public asset: it needs robust, radical policies to go with that intent. Worryingly though, it looks like housing is becoming the rope in a tug-of-war between the left and right of the party. If the recidivists win, Labour will lose.