Continuing our series of contributions from Labour Party Leader and Deputy leader contenders, here are the views of Stella Creasy MP in response to the series of questions posed by London Labour Housing Group.
Stella Creasy MP writes in response to LLHG’s key questions on housing.
Resolving Britain’s housing crisis should be Labour’s top priority for the years ahead. It is not by accident that housing is a priority in Wales, but because they have a Labour Government. Yet we do not have to wait until an election to show how we would ensure everyone in Britain has a decent roof above their head – we can start now by highlighting how Labour would address these issues and challenging the government to support us. I’m standing to be Deputy Leader to help Labour once again become a movement that can win these arguments – and so show why we should be returned to office in 2020.
To tackle Britain’s housing crisis means acting not just on social housing, but the private rented sector and home ownership too. It is startling to note that 2015 was the year more buy to let mortgages than first time buyer mortgages were issued. With the average age at which anyone gets on the housing ladder now 37, millions of people struggling to keep up with rising rents and long waiting lists for social housing we need to recognise the interconnected nature of these challenges. When it comes to keeping a roof over your head, Labour should not let this government set one sector against the other, or generation against generation, but instead act to ensure every citizen can access affordable and quality housing.
The inequalities housing access can generate, and the damage this does to whole areas is why we have been campaigning on these issues in my local community for the last two years. We see first hand the damage this government’s policies are doing, as residents cannot afford to stay in our community or get into debt trying to avoid homelessness. That is why we launched our own campaign to take on the agents who were exploiting housing pressures and why I supported my council as they introduced a landlord licencing scheme. But this isn’t just a London matter – we are seeing the same problems across the country.
In reforming the private rented sector there is much to be done. I was proud to work closely with Emma Reynolds MP to put forward proposals through the Consumer Rights Bill to tackle rip off practices of letting and estate agents, as well as ensure longer tenancies and housing standards are upheld. Together we defeated ‘double charging’ whereby estate agents were charging a fee to buyers of properties as well as sellers and ensured the government introduced transparency of fees for tenants. However, the opposition of the government to real reform of the private rented sector shows why Labour must lead the way.
Labour should continue to champion abolishing fees for tenants as a matter of contract law – given it creates a conflict of interest for agents to act for both tenants and landlords on the same property – as well as measures to introduce longer tenancies and higher housing standards, including licensing of properties. There are many different ways to do this. I would like to encourage local councils to set up landlord co-operatives to bypass agent fees in return for longer tenancy agreements with social tenants and guaranteed occupancy rates. Labour could also champion a change in buy to let mortgages to enable longer tenancies to be offered by those with such agreements.
Above all, Britain needs more housing stock and to fund this so that local authorities can build the properties they so desperately need. As LHG argue, we need to both review the HRA borrowing cap, and introduce new forms of finance into housing development. The pensions bond issued by this government in 2015 raised more in one year than they spent on social housing in the last parliament. That is why I have proposed using a pensions bond to enable those who are investing in property to invest in providing this for the next generation, and to do so in a way that gives local authorities the opportunity to build. This would give security of funding to bond investors, local councils and future home owners alike. It would also help support those local councils doing innovative work to address the housing crisis in their communities like Southwark utilising vacant or underused sites for 11,000 new council houses, Manchester City Council forging new partnerships to boost investment and Oldham employing co-operative principles to allow collective ownership of property developments.
Providing the funds to build social housing is only half the battle – the lack of social housing in the Walthamstow Dog Track development put forward by London and Quadrant reflects the wider challenge in ensuring that whatever funding is generated for housing helps address the housing needs of all, not just the interests of developers. The definition of affordable is unclear and led by reference to market rents, not household incomes – this needs to change. So too planning legislation should be used to ensure not just a net reduction in social rented properties but also its provision alongside affordable properties for rent and shared ownership. Building homes for rent, ownership and shared schemes should not be seen as different ambitions but all part of the same challenge.
As part of this process, reviewing how Right to Buy is enacted is key – Labour should support the principle of Right to Buy so that those on the lowest incomes have the same chance of home ownership as others. However, we should not support its current execution by the Tories where this has been at the expense of replenishing the supply of properties. The lack of house building and the further squeeze on properties created by the government proposals around extending this to housing association properties will only further exacerbate the housing problems many face. There is no evidence the government has any policies to address this and increase housing stock, and until they do Labour should resist any moves to decrease the provision of social housing stock.
So too we should also challenge the decision to cut social rents without investing in further development given the evidence that this will lead to a reduction in properties being built. Instead of weakening housing associations as this government is doing in these ways, Labour should be charging them along with councils with the responsibility to increase housing stock. To help do this not only should we rethink the HRA cap as set out above, we should also give greater powers to local and regional government to drive the location and nature of house building- helping local communities decide for themselves how best to use land, whether currently greenbelt or commercially zoned. However, we should seek legislation to clarify that any permission to build should come with a clear timetable to prevent land banking and delay.
Finally, the LHG questions also raise concerns about homelessness and the rules currently in place. As well as restoring the rights of vulnerable groups to provision, I believe it should be a statutory requirement for all local authorities to provide independent housing advice to residents. I also would campaign for the rent a room tax relief to be both raised and directly linked to single homelessness and housing benefit receipt to open up a new source of property to this group.
There are many different ways Labour can fight for housing to be a national priority – but we must be clear that we are offering more than anger over the failure of this government to act. We must provide answers which reflect our values and our vision of the way in which housing problems can be solved for every community.
This requires speaking up for change throughout the country and asking our activists to help win this argument. That is why during this contest I have been running campaign training sessions around Britain – at every session the provision of housing and addressing these concerns has been a priority raised by Labour activists. To enable them to act on these issues we don’t just need leadership in Westminster but around our country and our communities to make the case for change. I don’t want to be a Deputy Leader in a back office in Westminster but out on the frontline with these grassroots activists offering ideas for how to solve these challenges.
With your help together we can make sure everyone in Britain has a roof above their head and a future to which to look forward.