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Diana Johnson MP: Decent Homes for All

Diana Johnson MP has written the article below for the Tribune Group of Labour MPs. It can also be viewed at http://www.labourtribunemps.org/decent_homes_for_all1

 

Decent Homes for All
Diana Johnson, MP for Hull North
 
The Housing Crisis
 
A safe and secure home for all is both a basic right in a civilised society and a requirement of a productive economy.
 
The UK is currently failing to achieve this. We have a full-scale housing crisis. Housing has never been less affordable in a society where studying and saving for pensions is also costing more. 
 
Despite low interest rates, servicing enormous mortgages makes home ownership impossible for the majority of under 40s and home ownership has declined to the lowest level for 30 years. 
 
Meanwhile rents in the private sector are soaring while waiting lists for all forms of social housing amount to some 1.2 million. 
 
House-building is at its lowest level since the 1920s – lagging behind demand – and homelessness has doubled since 2010. Millions live in insecure, often substandard, rented accommodation. 
 
The Tory Government pays lip service to the crisis, but has no credible plan for addressing it.
 
Building for the Future
 
To meet this crisis the country needs to build more homes than at any time since the 1970s. Labour’s 2017 manifesto promised to build a million new homes over a Parliament, but even this looks inadequate. It is not only about meeting need: this would be a major boost to economic growth, jobs and skills.
 
This will involve an across the board mobilisation. The Lyons Commission estimated the figure needed as 240,000 new homes a year - 80,000 more each year than are currently being built. 
 
With the 1.2 million waiting for social housing, the pledge to build at least a million homes in five years – to rent or buy - needs to be backed by a major renovation programme to bring many of the 1.4 million empty homes back into use.
 
Although private investment is essential, the private sector alone will not build on the scale needed – even though the top five house-building companies made a record £3.3 billion in profit last year. The impetus will have to come from the Government. Capital could be raised from a Financial Transaction Tax and, if necessary, reviving the Windfall Tax on excessive profits, whether it is in the banking sector or energy companies.  
 
No single policy will deliver the number of new homes needed. A broad range of initiatives will be required and house-building needs to be diversified. Alongside Labour’s proposed dedicated Department for Housing, elected councils’ strategic enabling role in housing regeneration should be formally restored.
 
Councils need to be freed to borrow to invest in housing-building and renovation - including underwriting loans to small and medium-sized building companies. Viable empty properties should be brought back into use, alongside new-build homes on brownfield sites. 
 
Land banking by property speculators must be stopped through the tax system and the use of Compulsory Purchase powers. These instruments should also be used to bring empty private sector dwellings back into use as social housing, for example where private landlords choose to exit the lettings market. 
 
Local authorities must be re-empowered, and have a legal duty, to use the planning system to set minimum quotas in development schemes for building more social housing, helping to replace council dwellings sold and encouraging more mixed tenure development.  The Tory bias in favour of wealthy areas in the New Homes Bonus must be reversed to redirect funding to areas with the greatest housing need.
 
Choice for the many
 
Housing choice should be open to the many, not just the wealthy few. The central plank of Labour housing policy should be to meet both need and aspiration, but never one at the expense of the other.
 
Labour’s 2017 manifesto proposed giving “local people buying their first home ‘first dibs’ on new homes built in their area”. This ‘first dibs’ policy should also apply in social housing allocations to prioritise local people in greatest need who have waited the longest for a rented home.
 
Labour should champion social housing, defined as being not-for-profit, having genuinely affordable rents and secure tenancies – with tenant rights lost since 2010 restored. Council housing is not the only form of social rented housing, nor the only model of accountability. Council elections are often determined by non-housing issues and most electors in most communities are not social housing tenants.
 
Housing associations, local housing companies, housing co-operatives and community groups need to play a major role, not least in areas where councils fail to build and refurbish at a sufficient rate to meet local housing need. Registered social landlords would also provide expertise, innovation, investment and extra capacity in housing regeneration in specialist areas such as key workers, homelessness, supported housing, veterans, refugees, rural and coastal communities and accommodation with integrated social care.
 
The right of tenants and leaseholders to be consulted over regeneration schemes involving demolition, or changes to the management of their housing, should be guaranteed in law. However, local residents should be involved in shaping regeneration plans from their inception, alongside their elected councillors, rather than just having a crude, reactive, ‘take it or leave it’ ballot at the end of the process. 
 
If boosting social housing supply as soon as possible is a genuine priority for Labour, schemes that replace sub-standard homes with high quality social housing should be encouraged. Vetoing ‘social cleansing’ is no triumph if it also prevents existing residents benefiting from a better quality of life and a stronger local economy. Indeed, in many communities where high property values co-exist with crumbling council estates, social housing will struggle to survive unless regeneration schemes proceed. 
 
On the basis of residents’ right to better homes on regenerated estates being guaranteed in law, alongside proper consultation and with the same rents and ground rents as before regeneration work, the need to veto schemes should not arise.
 
Leasehold ownership should be reformed in the ways suggested in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, but this should also include ending the often unfair treatment of Right to Buy leaseholders on issues such as unfair housing management service charges and excessive major works charges levied for maintenance work.
 
Meeting need and aspiration
 
Working people should be able enjoy the fruits of their labour. This is why Labour should work to reverse the trend of home ownership moving out of reach for millions of working families. Help to Buy and other initiatives must be part of a determined programme to build high-quality, genuinely affordable starter homes.
 
The decision by Labour governments from the late 1990s to cut Right to Buy discounts for council tenants did not, of itself, lead to a renaissance in social housing-building. It merely exacerbated the affordability gap for many tenants in parts of the country where housing is most expensive - and diminished their choice. 
 
A modernised Right to Buy should be available to council and other social housing tenants. However, it cannot be the only mechanism for reversing the fall in home ownership and should not be allowed to undermine the long term objective of increasing the net supply of decent social housing.
 
Labour should insist on replacing homes sold under the Right to Buy with new rented social housing, with 100% of sales revenue recycled into building and renovation and levering in further investment. Councils that have not replaced homes sold in the past should, if necessary working with other social landlords, be required to build or renovate two homes for each one sold - tailored to the particular housing needs of their area.
 
New-build social housing should be required to stay in the rented sector for 15 years before being available under the Right to Buy scheme. Other affordable buying options should be available for tenants of new-build homes wanting a faster route to home ownership. 
 
Tenants buying at a discount should also be required to either live in the dwelling, or sell it to another owner occupier. 
 
Right to Buy homes, especially leasehold flats, that have entered the private rented market have been a significant housing management problem and this should be prevented. 
 
Quality and Quantity
 
Building more homes is not enough. The Commission for Housing in the North found that in many areas the biggest complaint was the poor quality of housing stock, rather than just quantity or affordability.  
 
Housing regeneration policy must be for the whole nation - not just London and the South East. It must go further than Labour’s previous Decent Homes policy in improving the quality of housing, including new ‘factory-built housing’, remedying the poor design, construction and space standards of much of the high-rise and other high-density housing built in recent decades; and of some present day housing development that runs the risk of creating the slums of the mid-21st Century. 
 
Higher quality standards should apply to all housing development in the private and social housing sector. We need to move away from housing designs that have intense long-term management and repair needs and create communities, including New Towns, where energy efficiency, fire safety and flood resilience are designed-in – while overcrowding, noise nuisance and crime are designed-out. Neither should cutting corners in the name of profit or cost be allowed to stand in the way of building aesthetically pleasing homes for the many. 
 
A mixed economy in housing
 
In a society of more diverse and flexible lifestyles, people will be renting in larger numbers for longer periods - even after Labour’s uplift in house-building. It is unacceptable for these renters not to have security of tenure. 
 
The inadequacy of the current system is epitomised by the fact that nearly a quarter of all housing benefit spending - £2.5 billion a year - is paid to private landlords who provide much of the most substandard housing that causes physical and mental health inequalities to fester.  Living in overcrowded homes holds back children’s attainment at school.
 
The decline in social housing means spending huge amounts housing people in poor conditions in the private sector, rather than investing in decent social housing. In turn this has led to large waiting lists for social housing - the hidden homeless - with people being forced to move away from their communities. 
 
Too often tenants are unable to hold private landlords to account. Labour should introduce stricter standards for landlords, in both the private and social sectors. New legislation should set out landlords’ responsibilities to tenants, as well as those of the tenant. A new registration system will allow landlords not meeting these standards to be banned – enforced by a new Housing Tribunal.
 
In other countries long-term renting for ten or more years is common. This should also be part of a mixed economy in British housing. However, a stable home means not having to move every year, or six months, and not being ripped off by big annual rent increases for the same dwelling. Labour’s manifesto promised to make three-year tenancies the norm, with capped rent increases, to ban letting agency fees and to enforce minimum standards on maintenance. 
 
Beyond guaranteeing capped rent levels over longer term tenancies, any more radical plans for private sector rent control should only be considered once a larger supply of social housing is available to compensate for the effects of any private landlords choosing to exit the market.
 
A reformed private rented market would continue playing a prominent role in specific sectors, such as student housing and holiday lets. However, Labour should diminish their role – and the amount of tax-payers’ money spent on them - in catering more generally for families needing rented social housing.
 
Labour should end the discrimination against 18-21 year olds in housing benefits and should replace the Bedroom Tax with an incentive-based approach by social landlords on encouraging tenants to downsize, taking individual needs and circumstances into account.
 
A Labour vision
 
Decent homes for all should no longer be treated as a utopian dream. 
 
They must become a reality under a progressive Labour government.
 
That means learning from the past and rejecting any monolithic ‘one size fits all’ approach to boosting social housing. 
 
It means fighting for a fair deal for the millions of striving working families who are currently squeezed out - expanding their freedom of choice and life opportunities. 
 
It would offer our country a modern vision of equality that levels up - never down.
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