Not much controversy here

Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to Labour Party Conference on Wednesday has caused a bit of a stir, notably his comments on regeneration and rent control. So what did he actually say and are they new departures?

He said a lot about Grenfell, focusing on the fact that it was an avoidable disaster and looking at events from the tenants’ perspective. He said it indicted ‘failed housing policies… and yawning inequality’. I don’t disagree, but I would repeat my warning that we have to be careful how we talk about the disaster. Grenfell does not tell us that social housing is a bad idea. When the Tories say ‘we must now talk about social housing’ I don’t think they want to have more of it and to make it better.

The most important announcement in Corbyn’s speech was that there would be a Labour enquiry into social housing policy – parallel to the government’s – with Shadow Housing minister John Healey looking at its building, planning, regulation and management. He promised that Labour would listen to tenants across the country and bring forward a radical programme of action.

In support of his core contention that ‘a decent home is a right for everyone whatever their income or background’ Corbyn listed a number of policies which I don’t think are controversial within Labour:

  • insist that every home is fit for human habitation (which the Tories have consistently voted down).
  • ‘control rents’ – despite much of the comment since the speech I suspect this is not a major new departure but a reiteration of the Manifesto commitments, possibly with some strengthened ‘Berlin-style’ delegated powers for large cities, and perhaps more interventionist policies like the London controls on Airbnb – which is of course a form of rent control.
  • tax undeveloped land held by developers – using the Ed Miliband formulation of “Use it or lose it”.

Corbyn’s most significant area of new policy, and possibly controversy, concerned regeneration, where his comments mirrored a resolution passed by Conference. He said ‘Regeneration is a much abused word. Too often what it really means is forced gentrification and social cleansing, as private developers move in and tenants and leaseholders are moved out.’

He established a basic principle: Regeneration should be for the benefit of the local people, not private developers. So, people must get a home on the same site and the same terms as before with ‘No social cleansing, no jacking up rents, no exorbitant ground rents’. And there should be a ballot of existing tenants and leaseholders before any redevelopment scheme can take place.

I thought Aditya Chakrabortty, in an otherwise interesting column for the Guardian, over-egged the new policy by claiming that Corbyn had declared war on some Labour Councils. Personally, I think Corbyn’s requirements are the minimum and I would go further. It is not enough simply to offer a new home to those who wish to return after regeneration – and some councils have had to be dragged into doing that – with the majority of new homes being for private sale. Regeneration – where it involves providing more homes in total – must make a net contribution towards meeting the housing needs of the district in question. Homes taken from the pool of rented homes to ‘decant’ residents from the area to be regenerated must as an absolute minimum be replaced in number and in kind within the completed scheme. Otherwise it is the homeless and badly housed who pay the real price of the regeneration scheme. There should be no dodges like replacing social rent with so-called ‘affordable rent’ or even ‘affordable home ownership’ – there should be a requirement that new social rent homes will replace those that have been lost. If that cannot be achieved through comprehensive redevelopment, then other options should be pursued, including partial redevelopment and infill. Many perfectly good estates are being proposed for redevelopment when what they need is better management and some investment to make them better places to live.

It was good to see Jeremy focus on housing in his speech, but all I see are sensible pragmatic policies that are a million miles better than what we have to suffer now. Not much controversy here. It is the review of social housing policy that carries most hope of future radical steps.  

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