The housing market is broken, and Conservative housing policy is failing to fix it
The only way to fix the housing crisis is to build more genuinely affordable homes, writes shadow housing minister John Healey
A year on from our last Labour party conference, Theresa May’s election mantra – “nothing has changed” – continues to ring true on housing. Home ownership is still down, homelessness is still rising, and the number of new social rented homes being built is still at the lowest level since records began.
The housing market is broken, and Conservative housing policy is failing to fix it.
Ministers talk about big housebuilding targets, to be reached sometime in the dim distance of the next decade. But Labour starts from the basic truth that what new homes we build, and who they’re for, matters just as much as how many we build. To make housing more affordable, we need to build more affordable housing. That’s why Jeremy Corbyn and I launched Labour’s green paper – Housing for the Many – in April.
It sets out Labour’s big commitment in government to build a million genuinely affordable homes over 10 years, by launching the biggest council housebuilding programme for over 30 years and building at a rate not recorded in Britain since the 1970s.
In the past, this scale of ambition was seen as common sense and Labour will show that it still makes sense. We will hardwire Labour’s new affordable housing throughout the system, from housebuilding targets to investment priorities, from planning rules to new council powers.
However, the very word “affordable” has been corrupted by misuse by Conservative ministers. So alongside new social rented homes, we will scrap their bogus “affordable rent” – up to 80% of market rates which can mean £1,500 a month in some areas – and replace it with Labour’s affordable homes both to rent and buy with the costs linked to incomes not the market, and set at a third of average local incomes.
In this way, we will build Labour’s new affordable homes for those who need them, including the very poorest and most vulnerable, with a big boost to new social rented homes at the heart of our programme. But we will also build for those in work on ordinary incomes who are priced out of the housing market and being failed by housing policy – the ‘just coping’ class in Britain today who do the jobs we all rely on, such as IT workers, delivery drivers, lab technicians and nurses.
This is the same Labour aspiration that prompted Aneurin Bevan to talk of the “living tapestry of a mixed community” when he led Britain’s post-war housebuilding drive.
Our first immediate step must be to halt the huge loss of social rented homes under current Conservative policy – 150,000 in the last five years alone. So we’ll stop the sell-off of social rented homes by suspending the right to buy, ending all conversions to “affordable rent” and scrapping the government’s legislation to force councils to sell the best of their homes.
We will transform the planning system with a new duty to deliver affordable homes, an English Sovereign Land Trust to make more land available more cheaply, and an end to the “viability” loophole that lets commercial developers dodge their obligation to deliver affordable homes.
We will back councils, housing associations and community providers with new funding, powers and flexibility to build big for their communities. And when Grenfell survivors contributing to our review say that “tenants were victims before the fire”, then radical reform is needed. So we will make safe homes for all the very highest priority, with sprinklers fitted in high-rise blocks and fire safety the first standard in a new Decent Homes 2 programme.
After eight years of failure on housing, it’s clear the Tories have no plan to fix the housing crisis. Their own green paper on social housing – published four months after ours – was billed to be “the most substantial report of its kind for a generation” by former housing secretary Sajid Javid. Instead, it’s a feeble report with no fresh thinking or fresh funding for new social housing.
After eight years of Conservative government, people see the country has a growing housing crisis. Labour is 13 points ahead on housing, and winning the arguments.
Labour has led the pressure on ministers to drop their long-running opposition and legislate Labour plans to ban unfair letting agent and landlord fees for private renters and give tenants the legal right to ensure their home is fit for human habitation. In recent months, they’ve also back-tracked on their refusal to offer any funding to make blocks with dangerous Grenfell-style cladding safe and to ban combustible cladding. But these are only small steps in the right direction.
In opposition, Labour can make the case for radical change. Only in government can we deliver what so many millions of people so badly want and need. This is our challenge.
John Healey is Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, and shadow secretary of state for housing