Melanie Onn: Labour will fight to make sure tenants' voices are heard
For too long people in the social rented sector have been forgotten, unheard and pushed to one side, writes Melanie Onn
Until the tragedy of Grenfell, council housing and the wider issues of council house building, ownership and management were not even a speck in the government’s eye.
The prior focus, if it can be called that given that in most areas of housing the government has gone backwards, was on the traditional Tory safe ground of home ownership; increasing house building, creating more ‘help to buy’ opportunities, ‘affordable’ properties and relaxing planning laws.
Now the government has magically found £2bn for a fund for housing associations and councils to bid into, unfortunately cloaked in the increasingly redundant language of ‘affordable housing’ stock. The sum amounts to only a handful of homes per local authority area each year, taking the government’s spending on affordable housing to just half the budget of the last Labour government.
The government should instead be lifting the cap on councils borrowing to buy new homes, and reinstate the Decent Homes Programme, on which we spent £20bn in government to bring the existing social housing stock up to scratch.
It is dreadful that it took the deaths of so many people, citizens of our country, to magnify the needs of communities, not just in London but up and down the country, when it comes to the social rented sector.
The inferno that ripped through the tower block threw into sharp focus how that community had been forgotten, unheard, and pushed to one side in pursuit of a smarter, more affluent and ‘acceptable’ version of Kensington and Chelsea.
The tenants in Grenfell – some had unsettled immigration status, some were unofficially subletting, some were low paid, some relied entirely on the welfare state and that most were from black and minority ethnic groups –simply didn’t fit the council’s vision for their borough.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government himself has said “it’s clear that in the months and the years before the fire the residents of Grenfell Tower were not listened to, that their concerns were ignored or dismissed, that too many people in positions of power saw tenants less as people with families and more as problems that needed to be managed.”
The reality is that what remains of council housing stock in the country cannot be eradicated, disguised, or cleansed away. Action must be taken to address how council and social housing is currently supported and funded as well as accepting that the future of housing in the UK includes quality council housing in the mix and actively facilitating that.
The failure to do this over the past 30 years has recognisably been one of the factors in the government and Kensington and Chelsea Council’s inability to solve one of the crises of the aftermath – how to rehouse people. There simply are not enough suitable, appropriate properties that government, at any level, has influence or control over to tackle this critical issue.
Sajid Javid has announced that government will now undertake a review of council and social sector housing. He says the review will look at the rights of tenants and show how their voices can be better heard.
In yet another remarkable 180 display, this is in direct contrast with the decision of the coalition government to abolish National Tenant Voice and the Tenants Services Authority as part of its ‘bonfire of the quangos.’ The saving from National Tenant Voice was £1m a year – it was a drop in the ocean then and has now been proven to be much needed.
The Secretary of State would do well to consider Labour’s plans from Shadow Housing Secretary, John Healey, to create a genuine new tenant-focused body called ‘Tenants’ Voice’, a government agency dedicated to upholding consumer standards for council and housing association tenants and leaseholders, helping individuals make complaints through the Housing Ombudsman, and acting as a champion for tenants at a national level and spreading best practice throughout the country.
Melanie Onn is Labour MP for Great Grimsby and Shadow Minister for Housing