Principles for an early Labour housing policy

This is the follow on from my post the other day, arguing that Labour didn’t need housing policies now. But we do need to set out some principles to show how we’d be different and use as a basis for opposition to the government. Here’s my starter for 10, but are these too specific and prescriptive still?

  • Defend the principle that the state has a duty to ensure the poorest and most vulnerable are properly housed.

Under attack from the coalition a no brainer for us.

  • Promote the principle that the state has a role in ensuring the housing system meets everyone’s aspirations

The government should ensure that the private housing market and the mortgage market works better to meet what people want. And there should be a role helping those who aren’t the most vulnerable, but may struggle to buy, to have housing that meet their needs.

  • A commitment to mixed communities

 There are good policy reasons to ensure a mixture of incomes, class and ethnicities in a neighbourhood. It helps build understanding and solidarity between different types of people. And I believe the type of segregation you see in the US, France or elsewhere is culturally alien to us in Britain. For example, part of London’s identity has always been that rich and poor could live ‘cheek by jowl.’

  • Maintain some ‘Bricks and Mortar’ subsidy, i.e. grant to build affordable homes

The government has shifted financial support for those who can’t afford a home from building affordable homes (bricks and mortar subsidy) to housing benefit to allow people to pay private or near private rents (personal subsidy). This will be difficult even in five years’ time, but we shouldn’t give it up. Mixed communities depend on it and it means we support a wider range of providers.

  • A commitment to a mixed economy of housing; more products, more choice from more providers.

Labour should promote a more diverse sector: a wider range of private builders and more opportunities for smaller firms, more space for co-ops and mutuals, get more housing associations of different sizes building and free councils to build again. Encourage, support, cajole and compel providers to offer a diverse range of products from supported housing for those with extensive needs, to traditional social rents, to a variety of sub-market rents, to well managed professional private rent and a range of ways to get into homeownership.

  • Embrace localism; free councils.

Tricky this one. The government’s localism is a front for neglecting their responsibilities for ensuring everyone is well housed. But, support for new housing best comes from a local area and housing provision should respond to local needs, the type of community and people’s aspirations. One popular way would be to free councils to start building again and putting their housing business on the same footing as housing associations with the ability to borrow (someone with better knowledge needs to correct me as to why this is so impossible, as I’m often told). They should be able to build for a range of needs and aspirations and not just social rent. We will need to find a credible way to square this with 1. What happens when local areas make decisions that make it impossible to house everyone well?

  • Intervene to prevent another property bubble

If house prices ever start running away again, let’s be brave and act. And let’s tell people now that we will curb excessive house price rises. Making this argument successfully should be done immediately while the economic crisis is still fresh in people’s minds. You won’t convince homeowners just at the time when you need to do it that it’s needed.

There may be more things I think of…

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7 Responses to Principles for an early Labour housing policy

  1. Pingback: I agree with Grant | Red Brick

  2. Ed T says:

    Fab points Tony. Here’s a couple of other thoughts, and one thing I don’t really agree with you on:

    – We definitely need to look at proper regulation of the private rented sector. The government’s bizarre and unevidenced statement that existing levels of regulation are perfect and should be left untouched has to be challenged; to be honest, it’s an area we were too timid on for too long. I think we need a serious look at whether rent controls might help (and am open-minded on this point; but it might help shift the balance from HB to bricks-and-mortar; and also make the PRS a positive choice, rather than a last resort).

    – Environmental concerns need to feature, and in particular a big push on retro-fitting existing stock. Decent Homes, if it was reinvented, would have gone far further on this point, and it’s where the case for some sort of Decent Homes Standard Plus is strongest. Regulation is needed to improve this in the PRS (the Green Deal plan will impose large costs on tenants and isn’t going to work). As an aside, the coalition has demonatrated a complete lack of interest in any action to improve the quality of social rented housing, so there will be a lot to do here.

    – We should be careful with “localism”. I agree it’d be good to let councils borrow to build (and the sacred PSBR is a rather less compelling argument against than it was!), but we need a planning process that takes decisions at the right level, and that often isn’t going to be the most local. I confidently predict housebuilding numbers will be miserable, first through the policy vacuum, then through the fact the new system creates a load more entry points into the process for people to obstruct development.

  3. Neil80 says:

    This may sound a bit harsh, after all your points do sound laudable, but really what’s new?

    A commitment to an unspecified level of ongoing state provision, more choice, more flexibility……

    That’s been more or less the policy for the last decade, or even two decades!

    We’ve got to look at what we’re up against. Firstly state housing provision has become a rump. The best bits hoovered up by the market, it now consits (in the main) of poor quality housing on ‘troubled’ estates which most people avoid if they can. People have been shifted from council housing to the private rented sector and the state is now baulking at the cost of picking up the tab whilst private landlords have been laughing all the way to the bank, particularly in areas where jobs, transport links and services are concentrated.

    So in this sense we’re dealing with the problems of the past, firstly poor planning and construction, and second all the policy decisions taken since the 1980s.

    Monimbo is also spot on – Condem are leading us to a future where housing policy will have completed a complete u-turn from its founding principles, not decent state provided homes for the many, secure and free of stigma, but a highly stigmatised, last, last, last resort for the desperate.

    You say free local authourities, but really at the rate local democracy is being hollowed out, and undermined will local authourities ever be capable of delivering big projects again? I remember in my youth in the 1980s the local council building bridges and dual carriageways, now the bigest projects they deliver are skateparks. It’s not just a question of expertise, but one of democracy, who makes the decisions like how many homes, where, what specification and so on, is it elected councillors, corporate partners who are providing finance, housing associations, tenants, local residents…..

    The housing issue also needs to be viewed holisticaly, it’s not just a housing issue, but a jobs issue and a transport issue. In my city there had been two tendancies, for business to concentrate at the centre of the city or out-of-town near the motorway corridor. Sites inbetween have been disappearing, gobbled up, ironically for housing. The problem here is transport, it has become more essential to get to work as no longer can you hope to live near a major employer. As bus services have been in steady decline for years, this drives up rents along what I call the transportation corridors, the areas well served by public transport with the housing scraps fought over by young car-less professionals, students and the poorest who also don’t own a car.

    Most of all we need to determine what it is we want housing policy to do; just what is our normative stance.

    The garden city movement had one, Le Corbusier had one… that is a view of what the world should be like and how housing supports that.

    I think we need to be radical here.

    The estates of the 60s were a mistake, as much as the policies of the 80s, but where we were under the last government seemed no better.

    We need to be brave in imagining our futures.

  4. Judoker says:

    Starting from the wrong place I think. But I need a long think about it.

  5. Monimbo says:

    Given that Ed Miliband has already called for social housing to be a ‘tenure of choice’, I think we should go for that as a principle too. It fits within the ‘mixed communities’ heading and is the opposite of where the Condems are leading us, ie towards social housing being only an ‘ambulance service’ for the poor, as it is in the US, Canada and Australia.

    Also, given that the government is pretending to take tenants’ views into account but only at local level, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to say that Labour should give them a ‘national voice’. Difficult for you to put that one forward perhaps, Steve, but I’m sure you would agree with it!

    This could be part of an argument that Labour would look for more consensus about changes in policy. The government have disregarded lots of different lobbies at national level, and are failing to consult on many of the changes they are pushing through. It is not enough (we should argue) for policies merely to meet the ‘Daily Mail test’.

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