'We can fix this' - Labour's John Healey on the housing crisis
As housing minister in the last Labour government, John Healey set about trying to revive the building industry and tackle homelessness. The South Yorkshire MP is keen to pick up where he left off and, as he tells James Millar, he’d start his next tenure by redefining affordable housing
John Healey’s Westminster office is not what you’d call decorated. The walls are adorned with a series of neatly framed posters from the 2001 election setting out the policies Tony Blair’s administration had delivered – Sure Start set-up, NHS funding, that sort of thing.
Simpler times. Labour had a record to run on back then. And the office reflects the man that works there to some extent. No frills, just getting stuff done. For John Healey is a rarity in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – he’s been in government and done stuff.
He was Labour’s last housing minister for nearly a year before Gordon Brown’s 2010 defeat. He wants to be Labour’s next secretary of state for housing.
With housing such a key issue in politics now, that’s an important role. But Healey claims his leader is particularly well placed to tap into voter disquiet about housing issues because Jeremy Corbyn has been banging on about it for longer than most.
“If you look at Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches from the very moment he was elected to the House of Commons, housing has for nearly 40 years been his top domestic priority,” he explains. But Healey has further evidence that Labour is taking the issue seriously. “He’s made this commitment that he would create as prime minister a fully-fledged housing department. That’s why I’m not shadow housing minister; I’m shadow secretary of state for housing.
“Another good indication is our plan for ending rough sleeping that we’ve said we’d do in five years – the course of a parliament. At the moment there is a rough sleeping working group within government which is chaired by the most junior minister in the MHCLG. The task force we’d set up would be led by the PM, Jeremy Corbyn.”
The rise in homelessness is the most visible manifestation of the housing crisis. Yet the Blair governments all but wiped out the problem 20 years ago. “That’s the real tragedy,” Healey frowns. “In the very early 2000s we were faced with a similar rise in homelessness and we know what’s needed now because we did it before.
“So we can fix this, we can reverse this, but it requires an understanding of the root causes. While for individuals there are often complex problems of addiction, relationship breakdown, financial problems and mental health, that should not mean that people are then forced to sleep on the streets.
“The root causes lie in a failure to build enough low-cost homes, a failure to step in to give better rights for private renters – the biggest single cause of homelessness now is the end of, or eviction from, a private tenancy – and the two-thirds cut back from the specialist funding for homeless people which is part of the programme we introduced as a Labour government.”
Housing has emerged as a key part of Labour’s local government elections campaign, despite the fact local authorities have had their powers on the issue eroded over recent decades.
Healey concedes that councils have “had their hands tied behind their back by central government” but still points to initiatives they can take in areas like licensing, planning and altering the definition of affordable housing. He doesn’t suggest a Labour government would necessarily loosen the bindings on local authorities much, instead the party has a range of bold and radical policies to be introduced in Westminster.
There’s a pledge to build a million more low-cost homes which, vitally, is accompanied by what Healey calls a “new Labour definition of what affordable will be”. We have to take a few minutes out of the interview to be completely clear whether he’s talking about a ‘new Labour definition’ or a ‘New Labour definition’ – Healey may have been first elected in 1997 but the latter might not play well in today’s Labour party.
He explains: “A definition of ‘affordable’ linked to income not the market. So you’ve got some areas of the country where affordable in the government terms can mean rents of over £1,500 a month and homes on sale for over £450,000. Which is why it’s so mistrusted now because it’s been misused by ministers.”
That focus on income is at the heart of Labour’s housing policies.
FirstBuy homes will be available to first-time buyers, with a twist. “Mortgage costs will be linked to around a third of average local incomes with that discount locked in for future buyers, so that discount is there for future first-time buyers not just first first-time buyers,” explains Healey.
The party also wants to cap private rents in line with average local incomes and it is proposing indefinite leases that would appear to tilt the balance in the private rental market away from landlords and in favour of those in need of a home.
“For private renters it’s hard to think of any market that is failing so systematically where you’ve got so many people paying such a big part of their income for what is often unsatisfactory and substandard accommodation.
“There’s no reason why in England we can’t have a rental market that works well for landlords and works well for renters as well.”
It’s those renters that are widely believed to have fuelled Labour’s 2017 election result. Theresa May promised to sort housing in the wake of that campaign but she’s been a bit busy with other things and the opposition retains a healthy lead in the polls on the issue.
Healey has a keen eye for the politics at play and if there should be a general election this year you can be sure, just as two years ago, Labour will look to make the battleground topics like housing rather than the nebulous and off-putting issues around Brexit.
Says Healey: “In the end as politicians we can become expert in policy. We are required to be able to debate and develop policy competently but if we do not also have a first eye on the politics then nobody else will. That’s the job that for us is our unique responsibility.
“So the people that work with me get a bit fed up of me saying, ‘Never lose sight of the fact our challenge is: how do we make housing count more for Labour and against the Conservatives?’. We want to be able to give people hope that things can change; that’s part of the challenge of any political leader and leadership. And we have to give people the conviction that we can do – and can afford to do – the plans we’ve got in place.”
Of course those sorts of practical political considerations are less pressing if there’s no chance of an election for a few years. Healey, like everyone else, has no idea if and when that election might happen but he’s clear that, despite plenty of expert opinion that parliamentary majorities are not part of the current political climate, Labour can win it and he reckons he knows how.
“By having the answers to the problems that people face, by offering a hope that things can change and by exposing the nine years of Tory failure on all sides.” An approach he sums up as “exposing, opposing, proposing”. It almost sounds like the sort of slogan you’d find on a New Labour pledge card.