The Right to a Home – 30 years on

30 years ago the Labour Housing Group, which had been founded in 1981, published its first book on housing policy. It was 200 pages of tightly-argued analysis split into 18 chapters, each with a specialist author, forged into a coherent whole by the editing of Christian Wolmar, now campaigning to become Labour’s candidate for London Mayor. Although circumstances have changed dramatically since 1984 – mostly for the worse, it has to be said – much of it stands the test of time and there are still lessons that can be learned for today.

The launch of LHG and the book – Right to a Home – came at a depressing time for housing. The Tories had stolen the whole debate with the right to buy, putting Labour on the defensive. Housing had slipped down Labour’s agenda despite having been a quiet priority for the Wilson Government of the 70s (although much less so after the IMF fiasco in 1976). The aim of the book was to set out a new stance for Labour which also spoke powerfully about housing rights – but a completely different set of housing rights from the Tories.

The optimism of the 1970s – when it was widely believed that the housing problem was well on the way to being solved – gave way to Thatcher’s single-minded pursuit of home ownership. Then as now huge cuts in housing investment meant that progress was reversed in terms of affordable housebuilding and the renewal of our oldest housing areas. Public sector starts (Britain) fell from an average of 135,000 in the 1970s to 36,000 in 1981 – the watershed leading directly to our modern catastrophe. Homelessness grew and there was an emerging crisis in the heavy use of temporary accommodation – especially bed and breakfast hotels in London but everything including caravans around the country. Conditions in the private rented sector were deteriorating, with several terrible fires in multi-occupied houses. As some housing areas began to gentrify, evictions became more common as landlords looked to sell out.

The core of LHG’s argument was the principle of the right to a home – that everyone, irrespective of income or type of household should have a practical right to housing on a par with the accepted rights to health care and education. Arm in arm with this, housing subsidies should be redistributed away from those that already had good homes to those that did not, leading to greater fairness of housing costs in relation to people’s incomes. Recognising that the withering of the private rented sector was leading to two relatively rigid (in terms of access) sectors (public housing and home ownership), the case was made both for new intermediate forms of housing and for greater parity of esteem between the main housing sectors. ‘Whether people rent or buy their homes raises no issue of principle for socialists’ wrote David Griffiths, ‘A viable strategy has to move beyond a sterile confrontation between the tenures by accepting their long-term coexistence and seeking to ensure there is real choice between them’. We would be in a very different place today if that advice had been taken then.

The book considered housing issues comprehensively, making proposals in relation to the reform of land taxation and housing subsidies, a better system of house buying and selling, the role of housing associations, housing allocations, and new forms of co-operative tenure. It broke relatively new ground by looking in detail at the issues of racial equality and gender equality in relation to housing policy. In one area the crystal ball failed spectacularly: it talked about ‘the irreversible decline’ of private renting and the need to plan for the removal of the absentee landlord from the housing system.

In my own chapter, on Planning Housing Investment, one paragraph I wrote has stayed with me ever since, featuring regularly as an argument on Red Brick: ‘The monetary constraints on public housing investment are more imaginary than real. It is a nonsense to believe that an owner occupier borrowing money to buy a bigger house is somehow ‘good’ because it is a private activity, but that a council borrowing money, ultimately from the same sources, to build a new council house is an inflationary drain on national resources because it counts as part of the PSBR’. Indeed, it made clear that the latter was a much more beneficial use of loan finance because it boosted economic activity, led to a permanent income, and by reducing social security costs and increasing tax revenue it almost became cost neutral to the Treasury. Ed Balls please note.

In the week of his funeral, it is poignant to read again the chapter by Chris Holmes on ‘A Political Strategy’. He made the case for the central political demand to be for a Housing Rights Act ‘which enshrines the legal right to a home within a comprehensive charter of individual and collective rights including the enforcement of minimum standards, security against arbitrary eviction, involvement in decisions and redress against grievance’. He called for a ’vigorous attack on the acute inequalities which disfigure current housing provision’. And, true even more now than then, he concluded: ‘It would be naïve to under-estimate the difficulties of gaining political support for a genuinely socialist housing policy in the face of entrenched interests and deeply-ingrained conditioning…. We need new ideas but active support for a radical socialist housing strategy will only be won through campaigning.’

So true.

 

Right to a Home’ published by Spokesman, Labour Housing Group, 1984, written by Stewart Lansley, David Griffiths, Steve Hilditch, John Perry, Mike Gibson, Jane Darke, Bernard Kilroy, Tim Daniel, Richard Moseley, Nick Raynsford, Alan Simpson, Geoffrey Randall, Bert Provan, Tristan Wood, Selwyn Ward, Marion Brian, Christine Davies, Chris Holmes.

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Obituary: Chris Holmes CBE

Chris Holmes, who died on 2 December after a long struggle with illness, was a towering figure in the housing world for more than 40 years.

 CHRIS_HOLME_555 2

Chris led many organisations in his extraordinary career: Shelter, where he was Deputy Director from 1974-1976 and Director from 1995-2002, tripling its income and increasing its influence commensurately; Camden, where he was a hugely influential and innovative Director of Housing from 1990-1995, putting into practice what he preached; the single homeless charity CHAR, where he was Director from 1982-87; East London Housing Association (Director, 1980-82); the Society for Co-operative Dwellings (Director, 1976-79), and North Islington Housing Rights Project (Director, 1972-74). He was also variously a Board Member of the National Consumer Council, the Housing Corporation, the Youth Justice Board and the Minister for Housing and Planning’s Sounding Board (1997-2002). He was also active in the Labour Party and was a founder of the Labour Housing Group in the early 1980s.

Many tributes have already been paid to Chris, but there is one particularly noteworthy theme. So many people say he inspired them to work in housing and to campaign for the rights of homeless and badly-housed people. Whatever job he had, day and night he was a campaigner, a communicator, and a motivator.

Campaigns in which Chris played a major part included the extension of security of tenure in the 1974 Rent Act and the transformative Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977, which changed government and public attitudes towards homeless people. In the early 1980s he led the campaign for comprehensive new rights for people living in houses in multiple occupation in a Bill which passed the House of Commons only to fall when the 1983 Election was called – what a difference that would have made. In the early 2000s he again campaigned for stronger homelessness duties, which led to Labour’s 2002 Homelessness Act, then grasped the opportunity it created by launching Shelter into an enormous campaign to influence the practice of every local authority in the country as they wrote their new statutory homelessness strategies.

Chris inspired people though his leadership, his dedication, his encouragement of others, his sheer hard work, and his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of his subject. But he was also a remarkable orator, capturing many audiences with his fluency and passion. He was a restless thinker, always ready with new ideas and new policies to debate, often controversially, although he never wavered from his core belief in the vital importance of social rented housing. He championed people’s housing rights and spoke out against the use of discriminatory language referring to social tenants and homeless people. He wrote hundreds of articles and made thousands of speeches but he was always ready to sit quietly and talk through the detail of a point.

In 2000 he led Ken Livingstone’s Housing Commission: as London had lacked a strategic authority for many years, he started with a blank canvass but steered a complex course through the new Mayor’s untested planning powers to create (looking back from 2014) an extraordinarily progressive and ambitious set of policies.

In addition to his many articles, Chris wrote and contributed to a number of books. His tour de force, A New Vision for Housing, published in 2005, has become a standard text. It traced the avoidable policy mistakes over 50 years which led to the gross under-supply of homes and set out new ideas for creating housing justice and sustainable communities. He became a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research and wrote an accessible but honest history of the Notting Hill Housing Trust, published in 2006, concluding privately that the organisation had lost sight of its founding moral purpose. He remained capable of stirring controversy, speaking out against excessive pay in the housing association sector when his term on the Board of the Housing Corporation ended in 2008 (when it was replaced by the Tenant Services Authority).

Like most people, Chris had his struggles in life. He had a number of serious illnesses and became dependant on alcohol, a problem he controlled but which ultimately, and grossly unfairly, cost him his job at Shelter just weeks after an external review concluded that “virtually all respondents felt Shelter’s campaigning work was very dependent on Chris Holmes and his high-level relationships”. In his last years he suffered from vascular dementia and other conditions which required use of a wheelchair, but he retained his voracious appetite for reading, especially modern politics, and derived enormous pleasure from the birth of his grandchild, Katherine Rose.

Chris was born into a staunchly Methodist family in Yorkshire in 1942, the son of Gordon, who was an insurance broker, and Doris, who worked in a bank until marriage. They lived near Otley. He was educated at Bradford Grammar School and the Leys School Cambridge. He took a degree in Economics at Clare College Cambridge. His Yorkshire roots perhaps explain his love both of hill walking and of cricket – he has been described as ‘a good batsman’. He was awarded the CBE in 1998 for services to homelessness and Shelter.

Chris Holmes 2

Chris married twice, having two children, John and Kelda, with Ann Holmes, with whom he remained great friends after their separation, and two, Cub and Sara, with Hattie Llewelyn-Davies. His love of housing was exceeded only by his love of family. The photo illustrates both, showing Chris after a 40 mile bike ride for Shelter, undertaken, despite not having ridden for 35 years, with son Cub, then aged 10. Hattie says ‘It shows his complete determination… No one but Chris would have thought it reasonable to attempt such a mad trip… I love the photo because he was so happy and it sets out his twin passions for housing and his family.’

The fulsome words used by so many in tribute to Chris – principled, generous, tireless campaigner, an inspiration, caring, compassionate – do not entirely do justice to his intellect, his capacity to lead and his impact on public policy. There have been very few of his like.

Steve Hilditch

If you have memories of Chris, please add a comment on the site below.

This Obituary has also been published by Inside Housing magazine and can be found here. 

And Malcolm Dean’s Obituary for the Guardian can be read here.

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Autumn Statement ushers in a cold winter for housing

In the flurry of economic statements and announcements that have taken place over the last couple of days, the word ‘housing’ has featured. But only just.

Yesterday the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, LibDem Danny Alexander MP, unveiled the latest ‘National Infrastructure Plan’ - the annual excuse for the Government to re-announce its capital programme. Almost as an aside, he declared that the ‘Affordable Housing Programme’ (in inverted commas because most of it isn’t affordable at all) would be extended for a further two years, spending a miserable £957m over 2018/19 and 2019/20, continuing the steep downward trend of housing funding.

Some might ask, surely that’s a lot of money? Well, not really. £957m over 2 years for housing can be compared with £15billion over 5 years for roads. And today the Chancellor cut Stamp Duty on the purchase of homes by £800m each year. For this Government, housing is miserably low on its order of priorities, and affordable housing is right down at the bottom.

The National Infrastructure Plan makes it clear that the Government does not regard housing as ‘infrastructure’. Given the Wiki definition that ‘Infrastructure is the basic physical and organizational structure needed for the operation of a society or enterprise, or the services and facilities necessary for an economy to function’, that would include housing in my book.

Yet in this large document, with long lists of schemes, there are very few mentions of housing: it features largely as something that might be facilitated by transport investment. Indeed there are so few big plans for housing that they can be listed individually. There is a loan for an extension to the London Overground to open up Barking Riverside, land remediation and other works to enable the Ebbsflett ‘garden city’ (since when did 15,000 homes constitute a ‘city’?), early plans for a second garden city at Bicester (this time 13,000 homes), and the nationalisation of new homes delivery for the development at Northstowe. Of broader interest, there are to be reforms of compulsory purchase procedures to hasten development on brownfield land and further reforms to speed up planning decisions and s.106 negotiations. That’s it.

George Osborne’s reform of Stamp Duty seems to be a sensible way of restructuring the tax, avoiding the steep ‘cliff edges’ between bands that have distorted the market. But is it the priority use of £800m when the problem is building more homes? At a political level, it is a success for the Mansion Tax campaign: Osborne has felt it necessary to respond to the demand for the owners of very valuable houses to pay more tax. His reform shifts the burden up, reducing the tax for cheaper homes and increasing it for more expensive homes. But, as Ed Balls pointed out, this is a tax that is only levied when a home is bought and sold, it is not an annual levy on housing wealth – wealth that has increased rapidly due to the property bubble but not been earned.

It will be interesting to go into an Election with the parties competing with their alternative forms of taxing mansions and very valuable homes. But it would be even nicer if the debate could, for once, revolve around competing offers to invest in genuinely affordable homes.

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Should councils ignore Eric Pickles’ letters?

To those that don’t already do so, ignoring the Secretary of State over the next six months while he’s making even more trouble than usual for councils might make good sense. His latest mischievous missive to local authorities tells them that by next April they have to publish the value of their council housing stock. Those that comply by then will provide convenient ammunition for Pickles when he’s in full election mode.

How does he justify it? Of course he’s not going to admit to being a troublemaker, so he claims he wants to ‘allow local communities to hold their councils to account’. To help them do this he’s forcing councils to publicise a completely meaningless figure – the open market value of their houses with no sitting tenants in them. It’s not hard to imagine headlines such as ‘Subsidised council tenants in Birmingham live in homes worth up to £500,000’. In fact, the clue to how the data will be used is already given by one of the headlines in the government’s own press release: ‘Multi-million pound properties’. Pickles thinks there is plenty of equity in ‘expensive empty properties’, the sole evidence for which seems to be the £3 million house sold off by Southwark more than a year ago.

He adds another little twist. Selling these expensive empty properties could reduce England’s staggering total of 635,000 empty homes, he claims. Except of course that even if councils sold off every empty house (and presumably stopped any tenants ever moving), it turns out there’d still be 608,000 empties, as practically all of them are in the private sector. No matter, it helps to spin a myth that empty property is local government’s fault.

With the apparent exception of the Secretary of State, most people know that if you own a house there are two ways to tap into its asset value. One is to sell it, which of course means you’ve lost the house. The other is to borrow against the asset value, which means you keep the house as well as get whatever else it is you want. Eric won’t approve of this idea though, as it would mean giving councils more borrowing freedom and he’d lose an opportunity to force them to sell even more council houses than he’s making them do already through right to buy.

We’re used to him ignoring what councils tell him about his proposals so it’s no surprise that he’s done it again. In this case, councils complained they could lead to misinformed debates about the real cost of their social housing stock rather than increase transparency. He’s going to address the complaint by putting a footnote to the figures explaining the differences between ‘existing use value as social housing’, and ‘open market value’. That should do the trick.

What the figures will show, of course, is that estates in central London are worth a fortune, and it will give further encouragement to councils to realise their value, regardless of tenants’ views. Red Brick has already tracked the story of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in Hammersmith & Fulham, where an intention to sell by the previous Tory council is proving difficult to unravel now the borough has changed hands. It can only be a matter of time until Britain sees examples like one provided by a Red Brick reader in Australia. The New South Wales government has a highly contentious policy of flogging off its most valuable housing: it’s planning to sell 300 tenanted properties close to the central Sydney harbour front worth about $500 million. In theory, three new flats could be built in outer Sydney for every one sold at Millers Point, but the government has pointedly made no commitment to do so. Perhaps I should have hesitated though before using such an outrageous example, it will probably reappear soon in one of Mr Pickles’ press releases.

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Ladders are dangerous

BY David Rodgers*

To change the nature of the political debate it is often necessary first to change the language used in it. The Labour Party and our supporters are doing this in the debate about the abhorrent Bedroom Tax. However much the government insists on calling it “the Spare Room Subsidy”, it is now ‘the Bedroom Tax’ in the eyes of the public and the media. Changing the language has won the argument that ‘the Bedroom Tax’ is a pernicious attack on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. We just need a Labour government to abolish it.

We need to change the language we use in order to change the housing policy debate from one that focuses on building homes for individual ownership in a dysfunctional housing market to one that focuses on increasing the supply of new homes in a range of tenures. The UK housing market is dominated and skewed by house builders who have a vested interest in maintaining scarcity of housing supply to boost speculative profits for them and land owners. It is has been further skewed by ‘Right to Buy’, ‘Help to Buy’, ‘Buy to Let’ and, in London at least, ‘Buy to Leave’, all of which have done nothing to increase the supply of homes that are genuinely affordable for working households without the taxpayer paying ever increasing housing benefit subsidies to landlords.

The Tories are good at this language game. There is nothing “Affordable” about ‘Affordable Rents’. Nigel Farage is also abysmally good at it, parking his by-election “UKIP Tanks on Tory Lawns”. On our own lawn, ‘The Mansion Tax’ might not be the right language to use. Despite its good intentions, a broader more equitable review of council tax bands might be a better policy.

In discussing our dysfunctional housing market we need to engage in the debate on our own terms. As Labour’s shadow housing minister, Emma Reynolds MP, rightly said at our recent London Labour Housing Group AGM, there is nothing wrong in recognising the aspirations of the upcoming generation to own their own home. But what is wrong is that this aspiration is only open to a shrinking number fortunate enough to be able to buy, mostly with the help from ‘the Bank of Mum and Dad’. But to describe this as ‘getting on the Housing Ladder’ is to use the language of the dysfunctional market. It makes out that ‘Getting on The Ladder’ as soon as you can is desirable because house prices will inevitably continue to rise relative to earnings and, if you don’t get on ‘The Ladder’ now you never will. ‘The Housing Ladder’, driven out of the reach of many by inflationary house prices, has been generous to ‘Generation Property’ but has condemned ‘Generation Rent’ to housing poverty and creates systemic economic risks.

Ladders are dangerous things. Perhaps rather than talking about ‘the Housing Ladder’ we should talk about ‘the Housing Escalator’. Escalators only go one way but those nimble enough to get on them only gain if house prices continue to rise because housing remains a scarce commodity.

Pardon the pun, but I accept that the language of ‘Housing Escalators’ might be a step too far.

Seriously though, let’s stop using the language of our dysfunctional housing market. Emma spoke eloquently about Labour’s policies for three year private sector tenancies, putting a ceiling on rent increases and banning letting agents from charging fees to tenants. But we need to use eloquent positive language too about ‘Visionary and Ambitious’ housing policies: ‘Stable House Prices’ achieved by increasing the supply of new ‘Zero Carbon Homes’, ‘Living Rents’, council’s being ‘Free to Borrow Prudentially’ to ‘Invest in New Council Homes’, legislating for ‘New Tenures’ like “Mutual Home Ownership’ that empower communities to ‘Capture the Uplift in Land Value’ through community land trusts, co-operatives and ‘Mutual Retirement Housing’, giving ‘Assured Yields’ to pension fund investors, and ‘Investing Public Land’ to build homes that have ‘Permanent Affordability Built-in’ for for future generations.

Change the language and we change the housing debate. Change the housing debate and we win the election.

 

David Rodgers is a councillor and deputy cabinet member for housing, employment and skills in the London Borough of Ealing. He is membership secretary of Labour Housing Group and an executive committee member of London Labour Housing Group. From 1979 to 2012 he was chief executive of CDS Co-operatives, a London based co-operative housing association and served as the elected President of Co-operative Housing International. The views in this blog are entirely his own.

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Another bad idea from Policy Exchange

PE freeing housing associations

Policy Exchange won’t be expecting a good reception from Red Brick for their latest housing proposals. Our opposition hasn’t stopped the coalition from adopting some of their past ideas, but their latest one is bad even by PEx’s standards.

It’s not surprising that Freeing Housing Associations has had a drumming, not least from Tony Stacey (presumably one of the housing association leaders they hoped to convince). It’s already been expertly dissected by Colin Wiles and Jules Birch, so Red Brick can step back from the detail and take a broader view.

The report’s starting point is the current development regime, in which new homes must be let at near-market rents and chunks of existing stock must also be let at higher rents. The report ignores the resultant decline in the social rented stock, exacerbated by rising right to buy sales, which has been highlighted in Red Brick and elsewhere. Some of the big housing associations – not, to their credit, all of them – have also been oblivious to these effects and are still willing to build houses on the government’s terms. And, surprise, surprise, they are the ones who also (perhaps behind the scenes) support Policy Exchange and its ideas. Key for them is a future in which they’ll have freedom to set their own rents and allocate their own properties. Given their powerful financial positions, they’ll happily pay the price of getting less new grant and having to buy out their old grant. As they see it, they’ll finally get the chance to break away from an irksome regulatory regime and cater for more profitable parts of the housing market.

Almost coinciding with the PEx report came one from JRF on what the housing market will look like in 2040. It asks who will house the poor, especially as absolute poverty has, since 2010, been rising for the first time. It points out that, if social rents were to rise to 65% of market levels, the housing benefit bill would increase by 125% and 1.5 million more people would be poor. JRF and NHF are producing a report in the New Year aimed at developing a genuinely affordable rent linked to earnings for those on low pay. They are calling this a Living Rent, and it will include costed proposals for how such rents would work. It will represent the polar opposite of the Policy Exchange proposals.

Freeing Housing Associations doesn’t address this crucial issue. Neither did the NHF’s response to the report, which insisted that associations ‘must’ be able to set their own rents and decide who to let their homes to. While David Orr welcomed ‘this critical debate’, his own stance was very clear. Tony Stacey and Placeshapers are quite right to point out that, in this respect at least, he doesn’t speak for all housing associations: but it’s pretty obvious he thinks he’s speaking for some of the big ones.

These associations think of themselves as dynamic businesses which can only prosper if they have more ‘freedom’. Yet for several years they’ve enjoyed a benign environment of guaranteed above-inflation rent rises, underpinned by HB paid directly to them, combined with low interest rates. How many businesses have that kind of certainty? Yet their surpluses don’t represent the sort of returns that major equity holders in a company would expect. Since the scrapping of the TSA they’ve also enjoyed light-touch regulation yet PEx claims they suffer from a ‘byzantine system of regulatory rules and financial constraints’.

To be fair to Policy Exchange’s supporters, we must admit that this debate was sidelined by the recent Lyons report, when it should have been central to it. Building 200,000 new homes per year is vital but equally important is ensuring that a high proportion of them are let at rents that can be paid by families on low to middle incomes. While Lyons called for 50,000 new homes from social landlords, he was much less clear on the implications for rents. Indeed, chapter 9 of his report hosts a mini-debate which anticipates some of the key PEx proposals. Arguments for flexibility over both rents and allocations are put forward and are contested, but Lyons ends up recommending ‘discussions’ with the sector over a new rent regime. It’s true the report then points to the disadvantages of high rents and the arguments for shifting spending ‘from benefits to bricks’. But it was the former, not the latter, that was turned into one of its recommendations.

My only disagreement with Tony Stacey and Placeshapers’ views of the report is therefore that they are too polite, ‘welcoming’ the debate that the report has provoked. The housing lobby might have its debate, but the conclusions will matter little to ministers. It’s more relevant to see the PEx ideas as part of a softening up process for fundamental changes to the housing association sector of which the NHF ought to be very wary. While we know the Lyons Review wasn’t part of this process, its equivocation inadvertently left openings that would have been better firmly closed, rather than giving further encouragement to the ‘debate’.

Why is this all so dangerous? As we’ve seen, the housing minister has already turned the unpopularity of the 2015 Affordable Homes Programme into a presumed acceptance by associations that they don’t need grant. And now the sector itself helps a right-wing lobby group make the case, in what might appear to be convincing detail. Let no one be mistaken, if we have a conservative government in six months time a ‘no grant/high rent’ regime for housing associations is firmly on the cards. Protests about the increasing housing benefit bill will fall on deaf ears, because most of the expenditure falls under the new welfare spending cap. In other words, rents will go up, but state helps towards paying them won’t.

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Northern Lights

The establishment of IPPR North a decade ago was a tremendously innovative piece of strategic funding by a group of north east foundations. It was an inspired choice to base it in Newcastle rather than the ‘usual’ Manchester. The UK looks different from a northern perspective; but the north looks different from a Newcastle perspective.

The Institute for Public Policy Research has made an important contribution to political thinking and policy development in Britain. It is a vital counterweight to the large number of extremely well-funded free market think tanks. Even for those of us from the north now based in London it is not always easy to remember that there are massive differences between the English regions. It is truer than ever that one size does not fit all.

IPPRNorth10years-141112

The founding of IPPR North coincided with the north east voting against a regional assembly in a referendum. In my view, the people were duped: Labour failed to make the case for its own policy and the opposition swayed the public with their constant refrain that it was an unnecessary tier of extra bureaucracy that would just cost people money and achieve nothing. Timidity meant that there was not enough proposed devolution from Whitehall and not enough reform below the regional tier to reassure people about duplication. But it would have been absolutely the right thing to do. Devolution to the degree we have seen in London was the answer to the ‘West Lothian question’, and could still be. The current ideas that are around for devolution to city regions are exciting (even when supported by George Osborne) but they have to work for more than Manchester/Leeds – we need stronger proposals for the more peripheral areas, including the north east and the south west, and more rural areas.

Proposals for an English Parliament of some kind are little more than a power grab by the Tories. It would be a joke to have another Parliament for 85% sitting within a Parliament for 100%. Much as I loathe Johnson in London, the mayoralty has gathered many more powers and provided a real focus for policy in the capital: the other regions need something similar.

IPPR North’s 10 year review report, which has just been published, highlights the continuing challenges facing the north and the appalling legacy of deindustrialisation. It shows how northern cities have been falling behind their counterparts in other European countries, a process that has intensified since the recession. There is some good news: growth in Manchester/Leeds is the best known, but the report also spotlights the relative economic success of rural areas like Cumbria and Cheshire. Government policy has not helped: a dramatic map showing the cumulative impact of cuts in local authority spending power demonstrates just how heavily the Tories have penalised the north in favour of the south east. However, this is not a simple reflection of the north/south divide. Much of London is hit just as badly as Hull or Liverpool: it illustrates how the Tories have (and will) penalise the poorer parts of the country in favour of the richer. The deprived areas of the capital – and there are still many of them – have more in common with the cities of the north than they do with the global riches of central London.

On housing, the report reinforces the point that there is not a single English housing market, but many. The regions could not be more different from each other, some have had an intense surge in property values, others face relative stagnation. Average property values in the north east are around one-quarter of those in London. House prices in the north east are therefore the most affordable, even in relation to incomes, but there is also a much higher percentage of owners facing negative equity. As IPPR North conclude, the housing statistics ‘highlight the futility of applying housing policy from the administrative centre across widely different housing markets: blunt instruments like monetary policy, mortgage regulation, and housing taxation have very different effects on different parts of England’.

The underlying feeling of optimism that emerges from reading the report is down to the changing politics, especially involving Labour Leaders. Traditional highly parochial attitudes are breaking sown and authorities are co-operating with each other over larger areas, especially the metropolitans. IPPR North say that a different type of leadership is emerging in the north and there are many new forms of collaboration. Even so, their key message is that the north needs yet more leadership and stronger voices, and it needs them now. Scotland’s independence debate has stirred people in a remarkable way, and the North’s future may depend on it finding similar common cause.

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They’re all the same. Oh no they’re not.

There are many of us in the Labour Party who would like the Party to adopt a more vigorous and less timid housing policy. Everyone I meet in the Party agrees that housing should be a key priority for an incoming Labour Government. There is an acute awareness that there is a severe housing crisis, which has developed over a generation and may take a generation of commitment to fix.

There is in my view a strong consensus amongst members on the direction that policy should go in: we should build many more social rented homes, make a big switch in policy ‘from benefits to bricks’, intervene far more in the private rented sector, curtail ‘buy to let’ and ‘right to buy’, and assist first time buyers by boosting supply rather than adding to demand. And that’s just for starters.

There is little doubt that Labour’s housing offer could be a lot stronger. But there is a world of difference between wanting Labour to adopt stronger policies and taking the view that there is ‘no difference’ between Labour and the Tories or between Miliband and Cameron. That was the issue in a recent Twitter exchange between myself and Alex Hilton, a former parliamentary candidate who has lost faith in the Party.

Even if Ed Miliband had no housing policies at all I would still prefer him to Cameron, whose approach to housing makes Thatcher look like a bleeding heart liberal. The Tories’ policies have been chronicled in these pages many times and don’t need repeating in detail. But their performance on housing supply has been pitiful, their cut of 60% in housing grant was vicious, their agenda is to end social rented housing, and they refuse almost every demand for intervention in the ‘free market’ of the private rented sector, apart from to pile in more support for ‘buy to let’. Their benefits policy is creating an ever bigger gap between incomes and rents for tenants in all tenures, in and out of work. Bedroom Tax has come to symbolize their ideology – attacking the poor, punitive, and uncaring about the consequences. I think many people will vote Labour even if its only housing policy is to abolish the Bedroom Tax.

Labour’s policies have also been recorded on Red Brick as they have emerged. Largely they have been welcomed for their general direction, but often with a wish that they could have gone further or been stronger – the Lyons report being the most recent example. Committing to 200,000 new homes a year is a crucial step: as Labour gets into Government, it will find that it needs more ‘policy’ to achieve the target, but the pressure will be in the right direction and they will pull out the stops to achieve this headline target. In relation to private tenants, Alex’s greatest beef, Jack Dromey spent most of his tenure of the shadow housing job talking seriously with people in the sector and developing a sensible and comprehensive plan: longer tenancies, more predictable rents, controls on agents’ fees, stronger controls on revenge eviction, licensing of landlords, stronger enforcement of standards, dealing with rogue landlords. I think many private tenants will welcome this package and Labour should campaign vigorously on it. Of course it’s not a policy that abolishes capitalism, it does not control the market and it does not bring rents down – only a much faster rate of housebuilding sustained over a very long period can do that.

One of Alex’s refrains is that Labour will do nothing to take the heat out of house price inflation and bring about house price deflation – the mechanism that will supposedly lead quickly to falling rents and the end of profiteering. He thinks this is because Labour does not wish to upset ‘Daily Mail reading swing voters in marginal seats’. However, one of the few things that Red Brick ever agreed with Grant Shapps about was when he made a thoughtful speech on the need for long term price stability, a gradual adjustment of house values against incomes (a speech since forgotten by the rest of the Tories). In my view this is exactly what Labour should be aiming for, as an objective of monetary policy as much as housing policy. It cannot be done quickly: far from solving the problems of private renters, a rapid fall in house prices would create chaos for even more people, as we saw on previous occasions when bubbles burst.

In his original rather personal attack on Miliband, Alex argued that ‘Austerity may be a necessity but our party, with our values, ought to be standing up for people.’ In my view that is pretty much the place that Milband (and Balls) are coming from. Alex has more in common with them than with me, because I do not accept the necessity of austerity and certainly not in the form that makes the poor and people on ordinary incomes pay the price for the collapse of the bankers’ casino. Rather than attacking people personally, we should spend our time making the strong case for housing and infrastructure-led growth creating real jobs and boosting tax receipts. The housing world should accept much of the blame for failing to make the case. It’s not just politicians.

But that is by-the-by. Alex has fallen into a bigger trap. We are now going through the most sustained attempt to undermine a Leader since the red smears against Harold Wilson. Jumping on the bandwagon is very damaging for the progressive cause. It is not an internal coup but the right-wing press taking revenge on Miliband for his stance on press behaviour – a stance the whole party strongly supported – by exploiting the anonymous words of a few permanent malcontents and endlessly repeating pictures of him eating a bacon sandwich. They hope to cause conflict, sap morale and feed disillusionment within the party. It is a time for anyone vaguely on the left to pull together to get rid of the Tories, and the only way to do that is to put Ed Miliband in Downing Street. My belief is that he is a principled man who will lead a good Labour Government which will achieve real improvements for ordinary people.

And even if you don’t believe that, if the only thing that voting Labour achieves is to wipe the smugness off the faces of Cameron Osborne and Duncan Smith, it will be all worthwhile.

And here are some pics that haven’t been repeated in the media day after day.

faragecameron obama

johnson eating

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Labour’s energy efficiency plan – an excellent start

end to cold homes

The good thing about Labour’s energy efficiency plan is that it’s a proper plan with costed and achievable targets. But does it go far enough?

Among the many failures of the coalition government, its inability to deliver energy efficiency and renewable energy to householders, especially those in fuel poverty, is one of its most serious. While the department responsible, DECC, has produced countless strategy documents (its energy efficiency action plan alone is 146 pages long) its achievements on the domestic front have been little short of pathetic. It closed down Labour’s successful Warm Front programme as well as the earlier versions of the obligations on energy companies, known as CERT and CESP. It abandoned Labour plans to put in place a successor to the Decent Homes Standard which would have focussed on energy efficiency. Instead, it launched the Green Deal as its flagship scheme, making all sorts of claims for it (including that it would achieve ‘near zero’ carbon emissions from housing by 2050). In fact, as Labour’s paper points out, it’s been a flop: although over a third of a million householders commissioned Green Deal assessments, less than 2,000 have actually completed the work so far. This means the coalition can’t meet its carbon targets on its current trajectory: as an example, the Committee on Climate Change said that 130,000 solid wall homes should have been insulated last year. But less than 25,000 were actually done.

Labour’s new plan is set out today in An End to Cold Homes. Like the coalition’s plans, much of it rests on payments by the energy companies. It would keep the size of the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) as it is now, but reuse the money in two ways. First, it would generate half a million free energy efficiency assessments for householders a year. These would be aimed not only at advising people what they need to do but at persuading them they need to do it. Then, 200,000 poorer households each year would be targeted for ‘whole house’ retrofit work, aimed at getting their homes to at least grade ‘C’ on the energy performance certificate scale (A, B and C are the highest grades, very poor properties are in grades F and G; 95% of families in fuel poverty live in houses graded D or lower). Work should cost an average of £4,750 per property, with an upper limit of £10,000. The work would be done by local authorities or other local agencies, building on the successful experience which many councils have with earlier programmes.

This programme is both bigger and more comprehensive than anything yet tried, and will be targeted at fuel-poor households. Its ‘whole house’ approach is particularly welcome, since ECO has so far aimed to install single measures like loft or wall insulation.

The third big element is a revamped Green Deal (and maybe we should revamp the name too). It would involve a guarantee to bring funding costs down, then subsidy to make the loans actually interest-free to the consumer. This should be a massive boost to the attractiveness of the scheme, with a target of making one million loans available in the next parliament. Neither this or the revised ECO would involve extra spending by the energy companies.

The fourth element toughens up the measures already going through which will raise energy efficiency in the private rented sector. At the moment, houses that are let or relet will, by 2018, have to reach EPC grade E. But, as Labour says, this is a very low standard. The plan is therefore to keep it but add a further requirement that houses have to reach grade C by 2027.

Finally, Labour wants to revert to its original plan for zero carbon new housing, without the compromises the coalition has introduced which have eroded the target. This is excellent, as building new homes that are not as energy efficient as possible is simply daft.

All this looks good, but does it go far enough? The coalition has stuck, albeit reluctantly, to the carbon emissions targets which Labour enshrined in the Climate Change Act 2008. This means we should be aiming to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, with an interim target of 34% by 2020. These are tough targets. Translated into what’s needed in the housing sector, we not only need to stop building homes that aren’t ‘zero carbon’ but we need to upgrade all our existing stock. That translates into over 600,000 high-standard retrofits every year, or more than one a minute. With a programme of that scale, any delay at all means it’s doomed to failure.

Labour has chosen to make the most of the current levels of ECO funding – and its plan has a very good chance of doing that, especially having been set in advance and if it’s applied rigorously, not in the on-off manner of the coalition. But a lot more investment is still needed. Labour’s plan is an excellent start, but more money is needed to drive it even faster. For example, the UK Green Building Council has called for an infrastructure fund that would start off at half a million high-standard retrofits per year, end fuel poverty and get all houses up to at least a C grade by 2025. That sounds like an even better plan.

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Austerity not so welcome when it hits the rich

Labour has run into a little local difficulty with its Mansion Tax proposal. Perhaps the biggest problem is that, although the proposal is very popular amongst the general public, many of the people affected by it have easy access to the media – notably journalists themselves, so-called ‘celebrities’, and other powerful people. There are also large clusters of them in some inner London marginal Labour seats. So they can raise a stink in a few hours while it took months of extremely hard slog by a lot of people to get some coverage for the abomination known as the bedroom tax, which hit much poorer people much harder.

The latest ‘celebrity’ to get acres of coverage was the unutterably unfunny Griff Rhys Jones, who said he would leave the country if it is introduced. ‘Goodbye’ was the common Twitter response. This man made much of his money from the BBC at our expense and, although it appears he has carried out major improvement works to his home, its value (assessed at £7m by Zoopla) has risen with the tide of the property market rather than through his own efforts.  The media has been full of the notion that people owning very valuable properties do so because of their ‘hard work’ and ‘prudence’ rather than a taxpayer-subsidised and economically damaging inflation which has given them a windfall. And, unlike most people, Rhys Jones always has the option of living on his yacht.

Property taxation is in a mess. The exemption of primary residences from capital gains tax – the only major class of asset to be exempt – costs the Treasury an estimated £10bn a year and is the key ‘subsidy’ to home owners. Council tax stops rising on homes worth £320,000 and more, they are all banded together. It is not progressive, which creates the extraordinary outcome that tenants living in ordinary homes pay as much council tax as a Russian oligarch living in a £20m home in Chelsea. Not only is this unfair but the system as a whole feeds rather than manages house price inflation.

Mansion Tax is one effort to tackle extreme housing wealth inequality. It is aimed at tackling wealth that is largely unearned and, so far, untaxed. It is one way of demonstrating that we are ‘all in this together’ and the money will go towards saving the most popular British institution of them all, the NHS.

Labour has thought through how it might operate in practice to avoid some of the pitfalls that have been identified. The threshold will rise in line with the general increase in value of such properties so more and more properties should not become subject to the tax. It will be a banded system rather than depending on valuation of each individual property, making it easier to administer. Home owners who are asset-rich but cash-poor (incomes up to £42k) will be able to defer the charge until the property is sold. Paul Dimoldenberg, the Leader of the Labour Group on Westminster Council, has revealed that there are only 61 H-band council tax payers in the borough who currently receive Council Tax Benefit, so the size of the problem seems manageable and is significantly less than some of the scare stories.

Ed Balls has already made it clear that the tax will be applied progressively. Owners of properties worth £2-£3 million will pay around £3,000 a year but it will rise above that, so the biggest burden will be shouldered by those owning the most valuable properties. It seems that the rate for £2m-£3m properties will be close to what people would have to pay if the other alternative – adding extra bands to the Council Tax – were adopted instead.

My own preference would be for a more thorough-going reform of property and land taxation, as I have argued on Red Brick before. I would prefer to see a more progressive Council Tax regime with more bands, with the additional income being netted off the grant received by councils from central government (so the benefit could be applied nationally).

The argument that the Mansion Tax is unfair on London has been widely repeated. But I agree with Paul Wheeler on this point: ‘Yes the mansion tax is a ‘tax on London’ but only to the extent that Corporation Tax on Banks is a tax on London because that’s where the money is’. Labour should not resile from the principle that the owners of the greatest wealth and the most valuable properties should pay more tax. There is still room for debate about how it should be applied. For example, the £2m threshold could be re-set by apply the proposed inflation-link retrospectively. Mansion Tax was first mooted at £2m about 4-5 years ago. It could be raised to take account of inflation since, taking a significant number of the ‘just £2m’ properties out of the scope of the tax. This would reduce the initial tax take but I think it would be seen as fair and would take some of the sting out of the political debate.

Whilst of course welcoming the extra money for the NHS that will come from the Tax, I must admit to some disappointment that, as a property tax, it will not be reapplied to boost housing capital spending. Previous commitments to boost housing grant for affordable homes – a share of the 4G bandwidth sale and a share of the bankers bonus tax – have quietly disappeared. Labour’s only specific commitment to raising housing grant is to give housing higher priority within existing capital programmes. That just doesn’t seem robust enough to meet the party’s commitment to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020.

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