London Labour Housing Group sent a housing questionnaire to all of the candidates for Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Caroline Flint MP has responded in detail to the questions that we posed, and her response is set out unedited below. We will of course publish any other responses received.
Caroline Flint MP answer LLHG’s key questions on housing.
1. Britain is only building half of the homes we need annually. What specific measures will you take to increase house building?
Since 2010 the government has blamed local councils and the planning system for being a block on new homes being built. While some reform to the planning system to make it faster and less bureaucratic is welcome the government failed to acknowledge that the main block to building homes has been money. Housing Associations are starved of grant money to build affordable homes; councils are held back by the HRA debt cap, first-time buyers can’t save for a deposit and so house builders can’t build homes that people can afford to buy.
This situation is being made worse by the government’s changes to housing policy since the election: the loss of income to councils and HAs reduces their capacity to borrow to finance the building of new homes, the forced sale of voids means that councils have a disincentive to build new council homes if the government will force them to be auctioned off before anyone from the waiting list is able to move in.
A Labour government in 2020 should give councils the power to build homes to meet the needs of local people, it must give security to housing associations to be able to borrow on the private market, at no cost to taxpayers, to build homes for rent and affordable home ownership and we must work with private developers to unleash the tens of thousands of homes which have planning permission but which aren’t being built.
As a Housing Minister I promoted Community Land Trusts, to enable communities, particularly rural, to retain new homes for local people. I promoted new Eco-towns, largely abandoned by the Tories in favour of a small number of “Garden Cities” with lower standards. For urban areas, alongside council/social housing co-operative housing could play a bigger role.
2. How would you reform the private rented sector to make it more stable and affordable for tenants? Do you support:
a. a national register of landlords;
Yes, but it would work most effectively if applied where councils need to resolve problems associated with private rented properties.
I spent my childhood in the private rented sector, but those days of secure tenancies and fair rents has disappeared. Today, the Private Rented Sector is not functioning in the way it should.
At the top end of the market professional renters can’t afford to buy and are stuck renting well into their 30s, faced with an array of charges from letting agents at the start and end of tenancies.
At the other end of the market people are forced into overcrowded, dilapidated and overpriced homes because of the lack of decent social and affordable housing.
40% of the Council homes sold off under Thatcher are now privately rented – not what was envisaged. Many of these now represent some of the homes in the worst condition, with the poorest energy ratings. I would take steps to force landlords to improve the condition and warmth of properties in order to qualify for any housing benefit.
In certain towns and cities in order to stop neighbourhood blight, (landlords creating vacant properties, clustered to drive down prices) councils need to introduce registered landlord schemes and ensure that inspections and neighbourhood monitoring was covered by the costs of such schemes – something not permitted at present.
My main concern is over standards: making sure that landlords aren’t putting tenants lives at risk in unsafe homes, that children have a safe and healthy home and that people aren’t ripped off by either landlords or letting agents. This means a much broader approach to the sector than just an excel spreadsheet with a list of landlords on – we need good, enforceable standards, we need to tackle rip off letting fees that see tenants forced to pay through the nose for basic administration or simply to carry on living in a home where they’ve been for years – and most importantly, we need to get building so that there are enough homes to meet the needs of people in London and across the country without having to rely on the private rented sector to pick up the slack.
b. some form of rent regulation?
One of the problems of the PRS is that it’s made up of lots and lots of small landlords, all of whom have different financial situations. I want people to have certainty about their rent and their family budgets but I don’t think that a blanket policy on all rented homes, applied retrospectively, would necessarily work. Instead we need to look at developing a proper set of standards in the PRS and I support councils, housing associations, and private builders who are now bringing forward private rented schemes with longer term tenancies and rent stability as a way of providing security and certainty to private renters.
3. Will you support the proposal, backed by former Labour Housing Minister John Healey MP, that we should aim to build 100,000 homes a year for social rent?
I support building more social housing – but the scale of the challenge is huge. To get back to the level of building that we need we are going to have to train builders, get a huge supply chain ready, assemble the land to accommodate the homes, get planning permission, get finance and get building. If we’re going to increase the number of homes then we’ve got to free councils to build so that they can meet the needs of their local communities as the people best placed to know what their community needs & make it easier for housing associations to build homes for social rent once again. Our language should emphasise a community offer – how many new homes in their area – and be credible to gain people’s confidence.
4. Will you support the removal of the HRA borrowing cap, to allow councils to borrow prudentially for investment in housing?
Yes – this won’t cost taxpayers a penny and by building more homes not only do we give people the security of a home to call their own but by moving people from the private rented sector into social and affordable homes we reduce their rent and the cost of housing benefit going to private landlords.
5. Do you agree that estate regeneration schemes should involve no net reduction in supply of social rented homes?
Yes, but I also know that many councils have significant numbers of homes that still don’t meet the decent homes standard and that estate regeneration is often the only option for councils who want to make sure that their tenants live in decent homes. The lack of sufficient government grant, the government’s changes to social rent and the HRA cap mean that councils will sometimes have to rebuild rather than refurbish and this should always retain the same number of social rented homes.
6. Do you support the Right to Buy for council tenants and if so what reforms, if any, would you make to it? Do you support the extension of Right to Buy to Housing Association tenants?
The RTB is hugely popular with council tenants and we shouldn’t be afraid of backing people’s aspirations to own their own home and have something to pass on to their children. However, the way that RTB works at the moment is making the Housing Crisis worse. Councils don’t keep the receipts from RTB – and can only use part of it if the receipts only form 30% of the cost of a new build property. Put together with the HRA cap and you’re seeing councils having to hand receipts over to the Treasury, who don’t use them for new council house building. The size of the discount needs to be looked at – and the receipts need to be ring-fenced to councils to use to build new homes so that we can actually make good on the rhetoric of one for one replacement. I’m also open to looking at whether local authorities could be given the a first right of refusal, or buy back option, on RTB properties that are being sold.
For Housing Associations, the position is different – they borrow on the open market, against their rental income. I am therefore concerned about the impact of RTB on the ability of housing associations to borrow money and build new homes. Housing Associations already build significant numbers of homes for shared ownership to give people their first step on the housing ladder and I would like us to work with them on developing a way for tenants to move into shared ownership as a way of being able to affordably buy a home. I would also like to see more support given to rent-to-buy schemes.
7. Will you sign up to LLHG, Unite and the GMB’s joint Our Homes Our London campaign against forcing councils to sell off properties in high values areas?
Yes – while I support council tenants’ rights to buy their own home the forced sell-off is completely different. It means that homes will be sold off on the open market to the highest bidder, meaning that families on the waiting list have to wait even longer for a home. Local authorities, especially in high value areas, should have a right to retain a minimum proportion of properties as social housing, just an they are able to protect housing for elderly residents from enforced sale. The Government policy is a direct assault on council housing in London, and I oppose it.
8. Do you support the Chancellor’s decision to cut social rents by 1% per year?
Everyone wants social rents to be as low as possible, but cutting rents by 1% means that councils and housing associations, who had made plans for investment in their tenants’ homes and to build new homes will have to rip those plans up and start again with significantly less money. If the chancellor is doing it to reduce the housing benefit bill then he’d get better results by leaving rents alone and allowing councils and housing associations to build new affordable homes for people to move into, to pay less rent and claim less housing benefit.
9. Do you support policies to switch resources rapidly from meeting the benefit costs of high rents to investing in new homes at genuinely affordable rents?
Over the last thirty years we’ve seen a dramatic shift away from investment in bricks and mortar, and into housing benefit instead. That’s a deeply inefficient and regressive use of public funds. I would like to see the balance altered, although clearly you can’t switch resources, without leaving significant numbers of people out of pocket. But we need to invest in building more homes and this can be done at no cost to the taxpayer by lifting the HRA cap and supporting housing associations so that more genuinely affordable homes should be built.
10. Do you agree that affordable housing definition should be based on households not spending more than 30% of net income on housing costs?
Affordable housing will mean different things to different people – it’s why it’s so hard to talk about affordable housing, everyone argues about the definition. We need a range of products to meet the wide range of housing demand. We need homes that are affordable to the disabled tenant living on benefits and homes that are affordable to the young professional couple looking to get a foot on the ladder. Artificial numbers and percentages won’t mean much to those people – what will matter is actually building homes to start to address the huge disparity between supply and demand.
In Government, I promoted some of the first shared ownership schemes, providing the security of an affordable home, but a ladder to climb to greater ownership. This approach was particularly important for low income but employed first time buyers.
11. Would you relax restrictions on building on the Green Belt?
I think we should keep protections for green belt. My priority would be to re-introduce the brownfield first policy that the Tories have abandoned.
12. Would you reverse permitted development rights allowing offices, shops, and other employment spaces in dense urban areas to change asset class and be converted into flats without planning permission?
We do have to be careful that employers and businesses don’t lose office space or get forced out by landlords who want residential tenants, taking jobs with them. But I do think we could make much better use of the ‘dead space’ above offices. Putting people back into spaces that are currently redundant could regenerate and enhance communities, provide affordable homes, cut crime rates, create employment and reduce pressure on the built and natural environments.
13. How would you secure more affordable housing contributions from private developers through the planning system? How would you change the current approach to viability?
The government changed viability rules so that a 20% developers’ profit comes before affordable housing. That can’t be right.
We should also end the Tories use of so-called viability reports, which enable developers to undo existing planning requirements to include affordable homes within developments. This discreet Tory policy has lost countless affordable homes and undermined what would have been good viable mixed, tenure developments.
14. Would you support devolution to the Greater London Authority and city regions of control over:
a. private rented sector regulation;
b. Housing Association regulation;
c. Right to Buy?
I think you’ve got to look at everything on a case-by-case basis, with a presumption in favour of devolution. But what you don’t want to see is housing associations being faced with hundreds of different regulatory regimes, all of which basically say the same thing in a slightly different way. And a conversation about devolution to London has to look at the boroughs, who mostly have competency for housing, as well as the Mayor.
15. Will you commit to restoring the previous Labour Government’s homelessness safety net for priority groups and to improving support for single homeless people?
The rise in homelessness and in the number of families in temporary accommodation is a real mark of shame on this government. We need to provide the security and stability of a decent home for all families and get back to reducing homelessness in the way that we did when Labour was in government.
We really appreciate Caroline taking the time to complete our survey. We hope that members and supporters find it helpful that we have published it. LLHG can be followed @lhglondon and liked through our Facebook page. LLHG can be contacted via the Chair Tom Copley (Tom.Copley@london.gov.uk) or Secretary Steve Hilditch (Steve@hilditchonline.com).