THE LABOUR MOVEMENT has been slow to take up housing campaigns. At a meeting in Ashford on 30th May local activists discussed how we can change that. People from across Kent, Sussex and Hampshire came to an all-day meeting organised by Unite Community.
It was an opportunity to discuss, in more detail than usual, the many aspects of the housing question, and to share knowledge and experiences. The resounding conclusion was that the Labour Party and trade unions need to do much more to oppose the developer dominated agenda that’s doing so much damage to local communities.
The situation varies in different places, but certain themes recurred throughout the session. Every area had a story of rising housing need, alongside a political system unable or unwilling to tackle the problem. Rough-sleeping has become commonplace, but so has the ‘hidden’ homelessness of sofa-surfing and living in sub-standard conditions that are a throwback to earlier times.
Young private renters, in particular, are exposed to the constant threat of eviction, disrepair and unscrupulous landlords, with local councils lacking the resources to take action. The abolition of ‘no fault’ evictions is some help, but still leaves many vulnerable. As the impact of the over-heated London housing market ripples out beyond the M25, the shortage of genuinely affordable housing is stoking divisions and racism.
Council housing, which for decades provided an alternative to the brutality of the market, has been in retreat since the Thatcher years. Some people at the meeting were from places that transferred all of their council homes to private housing associations (HAs), a decision many now regret. There was agreement about the need to restore HAs to their original social purpose and step up pressure for direct government investment in municipal housing.
But it was significant that some of the younger people in the room didn’t see council housing as something for them. One said she had been fortunate that she hadn’t been a council tenant, while many of the older people said they were fortunate that they had! Another young person said being a home owner was more secure than being a council tenant. Turning around these negative perceptions - and addressing the housing generation gap - should be a key part of Labour’s housing strategy.
The meeting reviewed and discussed current housing policies. No one could name the housing minister, a sign of how far down the mainstream political agenda the issue is, despite its being a national emergency. The Tories have nothing to offer the millions in housing need. There was hope that a future Labour government would change the cycle of despair, but concern that its policies could still be too timid and market oriented. While there are many things to welcome in the party’s green paper, Housing for the Many (which is still open for consultation), the absence of a clear commitment to council housing blunts its edge.
There was a general consensus that we need an ambitious vision for housing that matches the scale of the crisis. Linking this to environmental issues and job creation is vital – but we can’t just wait for a Labour government.
There’s potential everywhere for active housing campaigns. Among the ideas from Ashford were: holding street stalls and leafleting sessions focusing on a local housing issue like using public land to build the homes we need; wards and union branches to elect a dedicated housing officer to co-ordinate campaigns; organise a public meeting; and affiliate to Homes for All.
There’s sometimes a sense that the housing question is too big and complicated for us to solve. Blinding with science is one of the ways developers, planners and ‘experts’ push through unpopular, profit-driven projects. But there was enough knowledge and wisdom at the Ashford meeting - and others like it - to develop a sustainable housing policy that puts people and communities first. To do that though, we have to take back control and that means building a national campaign to win secure, truly affordable, energy efficient and safe homes for all.
» Unite Community is keen to help organise similar events to the one in Ashford. Contact Joe Dukes (Joe.Dukes@ unitetheunion.org).
Unite Housing Workers branch and Defend Council Housing (personal capacity)