By Sheila Spencer, Secretary, Labour Housing Group
Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, John Healey MP, addressing the LHG fringe meeting.
Amid the gloom of Brexit, climate change, and reselection fever, Annual Conference this year was a rather more cheery experience for those who care about housing issues. For one thing, there were more fringe meetings about housing and homelessness (at least 20) than any other subject – even Brexit and the NHS. And the Priority Ballot for delegates to vote on which topics they want to see discussed at Conference saw housing get the highest vote in the Constituency ballot, and one of the highest in the Trade Union one. Finally, a large number of motions had been submitted about both housing and homelessness.
So we were off to a good start, with the compositing meeting coming straightaway on the Saturday evening. Quite a few CLPs and some affiliated organisations had submitted the Labour Campaign for Council Housing model resolution, or variations of it. Labour Housing Group’s own resolution, put together following a lively discussion of the outcomes of Shelter’s Social Housing Commission at our AGM in March, contained many of the same issues.
There was fundamentally little disagreement between many of the delegates about what we should be doing to address the housing crisis. All agreed that we need a major programme of council house building, that housing should be at the heart of our campaigning efforts to win the next general election, and that the Right To Buy must end, though this could be accompanied by an option to buy a discounted home from private sector stock.
To my delight, no-one argued against compulsory purchase of unoccupied empty tower blocks, removing restrictions for councils to build new homes (by which LHG had meant counting investment against the PSBR), or abolishing Assured Shorthold Tenancies (ASTs). Nor was there any major falling out about the need for indefinite tenancies and the introduction of rent caps in the private rented sector whether Bedroom Tax should be abolished, or the need to build energy efficient homes.
There were, however, several contentious issues, and we took some time to explore them. Key amongst these were the question of whether it is necessary to state how much to spend on building the 155,000 public (social) rented homes to be built each year by the next Labour Government, and whether all new homes should be built to a lifetime homes standard.
Two other issues proved worthy of longer discussion, the first of which – retrofitting sprinklers and replacing combustible cladding in high rise tower blocks – will cause no surprise. Arguments were put forward for this to happen in all social housing tower blocks, to be paid for by the Government, and this view won the day.
The second issue was whether Housing Associations should be brought back under local authority control. From amongst the delegates present, there were several horror stories about the behaviour of these housing bodies which started their lives aiming to help to meet housing need and now seem, in the case of at least a number of the larger ones, to see themselves as private businesses beyond the reach of tenants, local councillors or indeed the government. The final wording in the composite, to “Give councils the powers and resources to take housing associations under direct council control” was intended as a last resort where the housing provider did not pay attention to the case made for them to mend their ways!
When it came to the housing session at Conference, the Housing and Homelessness composites came on the very last day, somewhat overshadowed by the dramatic events at the Supreme Court the day before and the recall of MPs to Parliament that day. So in the event it was just as well that John Healey had not been down on the programme to speak – but I felt this was quite a disappointment, given the profile that housing should have in our General Election campaign. I was also disappointed that Jeremy Corbyn mentioned only building council houses in his speech, ignoring the impact that could have come from telling young people that we will abolish ASTs and stop them having to move every 5 minutes. As John Healey often points out, for once, our current Leader needs no convincing about the importance of progressive Labour housing policies.
The housing composite resolutions passed by Conference can be found here.
At LHG’s two fringe meetings (“Time for Public Housing Revolution”, and a second meeting with SERA and others, “A home shouldn’t cost the earth: How Labour can address the housing and climate crises), people were in no doubt about the need for housing to be at the heart of our campaigning. As John Healey said, we must get across that only Labour can put in place what is needed, and give people hope once more.
And giving hope back to people about a decent approach to providing housing was very much called for this year at Conference. The visible need for this was obvious, since no-one can have failed to be dismayed by the large number of tents, people sleeping in doorways, and people begging that we passed every day on our way to and from the conference centre in Brighton. Despite going to several fringe meetings where homelessness was discussed, I uncovered no explanation for this big increase in the system failing to prevent people becoming homelessness other than the ones we all know about: sanctions, Universal Credit, Local Housing Allowance rates; sky-high PRS rents; and not building enough affordable public housing in the city.
I left Brighton feeling that we had done a good job on outlining what we must do when we are in office – but a little dismayed at what there is still to do to bring housing to the forefront of Labour’s collective campaigning mind. Oh well, back to the doorstep for me, then!