CommentLeah Levane

Decent homes - not 'housing units'!

CommentLeah Levane
Decent homes - not 'housing units'!

100 YEARS AFTER the Addison Act, following World War One, saw the start of council housing we are in a deep housing crisis. The lack of council housing is at the root of this crisis and is also a major cause of the negative impact of regeneration programmes, aiming to serve the poorest. With housing seen as investment rather than providing homes, such improvements can lead to rising prices so that the poorest move on rather than reap the benefits.

So I welcome anything that highlights this issue such as the Channel 4 programme George Clark’s Council House Scandal and, as Glyn Robbins has pointed out, the crisis has even reached The Archers.

Addison was minister for housing and health, but our current heartless government has forgotten or does not care about the impact of poor and insecure housing on health or anything else. The human impact of this crisis cannot be overstated.

Here are a few statistics: 1,114,477 households are on English council waiting lists, with 319,808 in the shire districts. Hastings, like many local authorities, has become heavily reliant on private renting. In my own town centre ward 64% of households now rent privately; across all of Hastings, the levels are now 46%. These rises, exponential since 2010, are reflected nationally. Rents are usually higher than the local housing allowance level and are rising much faster than wages, let alone benefit levels that have been frozen for some time.

Problems are not confined to costs; add insecure work, and insecure tenancies because tenants can be evicted under a Section 21 Notice even if they are model tenants. These ‘no fault’ evictions have been the biggest single cause of the increase in homelessness.

But there is an impact long before facing eviction. A secure home is important for building your life, raising children, creating stability, developing friendship networks and many other benefits that are recognised as crucial for mental and physical well-being. And because of this many tenants fear asking for repairs. Insecure homes and jobs plus austerity measures have left people poorer and removed the support infrastructure that could have helped them to cope. Instead we have the insulting misuse of ‘mindfulness’ to blame the individual for not coping, rather than addressing the systemic causes of unemployment and homelessness.

The so-called ‘affordable’ homes that councils are allowed to insist on as part of developments are not affordable at all. ‘Affordable’ includes shared ownership schemes, which are often problematic, and affordable rents are defined as 80% of market levels! Of course, the developer will usually appeal following planning permission, claiming that the ‘affordable’ housing element now makes the scheme unviable.

Labour is the only answer to the crisis. It can go further but for now our housing policy promises 1,000,000 new homes and the suspension of right to buy, with reinstatement only when needs are met. George Clark’s July TV programme also highlighted the appalling way in which office blocks are being used to provide ‘housing units’ for people who are waiting to be housed. Planning permission is not needed for such conversions and people are condemned to months or years being crammed into tiny spaces without play space or even somewhere to hang washing.

Like many other councils, we are doing our best to create decent temporary housing - but what we need are the powers and resources to provide decent homes (not ‘housing’ let alone ‘housing units’) for our residents. We are doing what we can within the constraints but it is not good enough.

In Austria, Clarke showed what is possible when there is a political will - and only Labour has that here. This government will loan us money at low interest, but this is not for building council housing. Councils can now borrow for social housing against existing housing stock. However, like many other authorities, we have nothing to borrow against because of stock transfer.

George Clark has launched a campaign to bring back council housing. Watch the programme on catch up and look out for future episodes. I trust that he and everyone else realises that the only way his campaign can succeed is to vote in a Labour government.

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Hastings Borough Council and co-chair, Jewish Voice for Labour.