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.