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Making Housing an Election Issue

Finding and keeping a suitable place to live has been getting harder for years – in this election, Labour must fight to make it a right for everyone in Britain.

Ken Loach’s new film Sorry We Missed You tells the story of a working class family struggling to survive in an economy based on poverty wages and zero-hours contracts. The stripping away of basic workplace standards creates enormous financial strain. But, like in his other films, Loach and his co-writer Paul Laverty, also show the impact of capitalism on everyday human relationships.

This experience will be familiar to millions and it has many facets. Working long hours leaves parents unable to communicate properly with each other or their children. Care for the elderly and sick has been reduced to a commercialised time-management exercise. Work colleagues become adversaries. Young people feel cut adrift. Low wages and high bills feed spiralling debt. Loach’s film captures all this, but there’s an issue that could have a script of its own – housing.  

The family in the film share many similarities with the 4.5 million households now condemned to the over-priced, under-regulated, often sub-standard private rented sector, where most tenants are only ever two months away from a compulsory eviction notice. Working long hours is the only way to pay an exorbitant rent and avoid homelessness. Their efforts to get a mortgage fall victim to the speculative housing market and there’s no prospect of a council home.    

Finding and keeping a suitable place to live has been getting harder for years. As with employment, basic rights have been eroded and the improved conditions fought for and won by earlier generations have been attacked. Mainstream politics has turned a blind eye and allowed housing policy to be controlled by corporate interests and property developers, aided and abetted by supine local authorities. Our cities are being turned inside-out as working class communities are pushed out to the margins, increasing pressure on housing in smaller towns and rural areas.

For too long, there’s been a sense that all this is inevitable. But, finally, there’s hope that a future government could start to turn the tide. At its 2019 conference, the Labour Party unanimously passed a resolution that could not only improve the housing situation, but win a general election. 

Composite Motion 23 calls on Labour to put housing at the centre of its general election campaign, something that hasn’t happened since 1945. Among the policy measures are action on empty homes, reform of housing associations and control over private landlords, including ending “no fault” evictions and short-term tenancies. It also backed the decriminalisation of homelessness.  

But it’s the unambiguous commitment to council housing that could mark a break from previous failed policies and bring fundamental change. The resolution demands a future Labour government builds an average of 155,000 social rented homes annually for 20 years. At least 100,000 a year of these should be council homes, paid for through direct government investment of £10 billion and not subject to the Right to Buy, which Labour members, along with many others, want scrapped.  Jeremy Corbyn appeared to endorse this core demand in his conference speech when he announced his intention to launch “the largest council house building programme in a generation.” 

The knock-on benefits of this policy would include cutting the waste of our soaring Housing Benefit bill (currently nearing £25 billion a year), as well as creating jobs and training in construction with a particular focus on improving energy efficiency for new and existing homes. The cost of bad housing to the NHS, estimated to be at least £1.3 billion a year, would also be reduced. 

Offering families like the one in Sorry We Missed You a council home, with a truly affordable rent and secure tenancy, would hugely ease money problems, and allow them to spend less time at work and more time with each other. Enabling people to live nearer to work would also cut commuting time, travel costs and carbon emissions. Better housing would mean better education, particularly for the 210,000 children currently estimated to be homeless.    

Bringing our housing and planning policy back under public and democratic control would help shape a different kind of society. We could move away from the individualism and atomisation fostered by the private property nexus. Different models of non-market housing like co-operatives and co-living could be allowed to flourish. 

This would play an important role in reducing loneliness in our society, and dealing with our growing care needs. Building a sense of housing as a shared social asset, rather than a private commodity, would encourage the sharing of utilities and services which is vital if we’re serious about meeting climate change reduction targets. The consequences of a transformative housing policy would be felt across the whole of our society.

To achieve all this will require a socialist government with the courage of its convictions.  The desperate need to do something about housing illustrates the folly of allowing the political discourse to be dominated by Brexit. To win the next election – the most important in my 55-year lifetime – Labour must cut through and across the toxic divisions Brexit has fed. 

There are no better ways of doing this than addressing the housing crisis. It’s a national issue that affects people of all ages and many backgrounds. The only people who will lose if a Labour government implements its conference housing policy are those profiting from the widespread misery of today’s housing market.

They’ll bleat, just like the medical profession did when the NHS was created. But we’ll never have a better society unless we’re prepared to challenge the status quo and vested interests. That’s why Labour has to have the courage of its convictions and propose radical solutions in this election.

But the campaign must go beyond the Labour Party, too. Trade unions can’t sit on the side-lines.  Housing is a workplace issue when it consumes so much of our wages, but there’s never been a co-ordinated union approach to building an alternative. Now is the time to change that – by communicating to members how a Labour housing policy would mean the same thing as a pay rise for the vast majority of working people.

There are key marginal constituencies where housing could swing the balance. All sitting and prospective MPs should sign the “100,000 council homes” pledge being promoted by the Labour Campaign for Council Housing and ensure the progressive motions passed at conference are included in the party’s manifesto. Grassroots campaigns of private tenants and communities opposing demolition of their estates should be supported and invited to get involved in organising local public meetings and hustings. Building a national consensus for radical housing action will be pushing at an open door.             

Invoking the spirit of ’45 isn’t always helpful, but the scale of the country’s post-war housing achievements shouldn’t be forgotten. Amid deep financial, political and emotional crisis, between 1949 and 1952, 860,870 new homes were built, of which 82% were council homes. It proves what’s possible. In this general election, Labour can make it a reality again.