Bricks and Mortar: Building homes should be at the heart of Labour’s future

5th August 2016

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Bricks and Mortar: Building homes should be at the heart of Labour’s future

-By Cllr Sean Woodcock-

If there is one issue that should unite members of the Labour Party, it is housing. Housing regularly tops the list of issues that concerns Labour members the most.

Housing is also an issue of grave concern to the British public. Younger voters worry about it as do those who are a little bit older. We know that concerns over housing, or a lack of, feed into concern about immigration. This should be an area where Labour gets a big ‘thumbs-up’ from the electorate considering how much the issue exercises both members and the public.

Unfortunately this is not the case, because the priorities of both groups are not at one.

For Labour members, naturally as a party where members pride themselves on their concern for the most disadvantaged in society, the priority is to build more social housing. Jeremy Corbyn has listed it among his priorities which must go some way to explaining his popularity among the grassroots.

Now, I have an interest to declare firstly as someone who has a day job with a housing association, though these views are strictly my own. I am passionate about social housing and its importance. The impact that having a secure, well-maintained and stable place to live can have on vulnerable people’s lives cannot be overstated. We do need to create more social housing to cope with the demand on this valuable resource. As a councillor, a shortage of social housing is a regular sources of casework from residents in the deprived ward I represent. I need no education in the importance of social housing.

But for the majority of people in the UK, social housing is not something that they want more of. For them, social housing conjures up images of sink estates, single mothers and stained mattresses dumped on overgrown lawns which they want to avoid. Of course this is an unfair image and stereotype. But it is also, unfortunately, the image that most people have.

Instead, for most people their concern is not about a lack of social housing, but is about a struggle to get onto the property ladder, for them or a younger relative. Because for them, home ownership, not a council house, is the aspiration.

For private tenants, the concern is not so much that they are paying rent to a landlord rather than a housing association; it is that the rent is so high that they are unable to put anything aside for a deposit. For a 25 year-old university graduate working in retail or a coffee shop and living with parents the ambition is not a tenancy, it is a mortgage deed.

If Labour is to be in touch with the electorate it needs to understand this basic desire among a majority of the British people. Labour must seize the mantle of being the party of home ownership from the Tories. When it talks about housing it must talk about mortgages as well as housing benefit.

There is an opportunity for them to do this because whilst the Tories have tinkered with the demand side and made the planning system work in favour of developers getting decisions it remains the case that not enough has been done to increase the supply.

Developers have been trusted to deliver the number of houses needed since the 1980s but have not done enough to provide more for the very obvious reason that it is not in their interest to increase supply and cut demand. Government, and particularly local government, must take the lead here.

The key is enabling and empowering local councils to start to deliver for the people in their area. There are examples across the country of councils using innovative new ways to get housing built; whether by selling off underutilised council buildings and re-generating the site or by encouraging self-build.

One key stumbling block, as with everything for councils, is money. There is a real lack of ability on the part of councils to borrow in sufficient amounts to get capital projects going. As well as this is their inability to adjust local council tax or business rates to stimulate growth or provide revenue.

Labour must now embrace further devolution to provide more power to councils to make these decisions and provide more houses.

But Labour must also get out of the mindset that all or even a majority of houses built by local authorities or housing associations should become social housing.

The problems faced by tenants in the private rented sector are well-known, from poor maintenance to uncontrolled rent increases and lack of security. Rent caps/controls have been shown not to be the answer. And the answer is not just more housing at a social rent, but also increasing the range of providers of market-rate tenancies.

Housing associations and councils have the experience, the desire and a proven record of success in providing well-maintained properties and secure tenancies for people who qualify for social housing. They are also involved in shared ownership. So why can they not provide a similar quality but alternative service, delivering quality homes at market rent for ordinary people who might not make the local council waiting list?

Many housing associations, hit by financial uncertainty in the face of the extension of Right To Buy and rent increases forced on them by the Conservatives government, are already considering providing some market rent to supplement their other activities. Labour should get on board and fully encourage housing associations and councils to provide housing on the open rental market.

In the wake of the General Election defeat last year, I mulled over the defeat with a few drinks and anecdotes with a comrade. He ended by telling me how he knew that Labour had lost when he stood with the canvassing organiser at the end of a long gated driveway with a BMW on it and was told, “Now don’t forget to tell them that Labour will abolish the Bedroom Tax.”

Next time let us have something useful to say.

By Cllr. Sean Woodcock

Labour Parliamentary Candidate, Banbury GE2015. Leader of the Opposition & Labour group on Cherwell DC. Banbury Town Councillor & ex-Mayor

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Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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