Labour should stick to its manifesto promise on social rent council housing

New leadership of the party does not change the nature of the housing crisis or the solution members voted for: a major new programme of council homes for social rent. The party must continue to push for this, writes Martin Wicks

From Inside Housing

Hopes of a radical change in national housing policy appeared dashed by the election of the Conservative government last year.

However, the current crisis precipitated by the pandemic has opened up possibilities which would have seemed unfeasible just a few months ago. The government has had to abandon its free market orthodoxy and take state action which it would not have contemplated before coronavirus.

At the general election, the Conservatives said that Labour’s £98bn spending programme would bankrupt the country. This figure now looks like small change in comparison to what this government has spent.

This is surely the time to press the government to make a U-turn on the question of funding of council and ‘social’ housing. This is a time for audacity rather than timidity”

Former prime minister Harold MacMillan once spoke of “the opposition of events” that force a government’s hand. Such was the coronavirus pandemic which forced this government to do things that it would have denounced as madness before it.

The government has been forced into a series of U-turns, including the extension of the moratorium on evictions. It was even possible for a 22-year-old footballer to sufficiently embarrass them to execute a U-turn in relation to summer holiday school meals.

As the old maxim has it: strike while the iron is hot. This is surely the time to press the government to make a U-turn on the question of funding of council and ‘social’ housing. This is a time for audacity rather than timidity.

There is a growing consensus, despite difference of emphases, on the need for a big building programme of social rent housing. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee (HCLG) of the House of Commons has said: “A social housebuilding programme should be top of the government’s agenda to rebuild the country from the impact of COVID-19.”

The committee is calling for the government to invest £10bn a year to fund 90,000 ‘net additional’ (over and above demolitions and Right to Buy sales) social rent homes.

Even the Local Government Association (LGA) with a Conservative majority recognises that the housing crisis cannot be resolved without a large-scale council housebuilding programme.

David Renard, housing spokesperson at the LGA and Conservative leader of Swindon Council, recently said: “Housing must be a central part of the national recovery from coronavirus. Now is the time for a genuine renaissance in council housebuilding that reduces homelessness, gets rough sleepers off the streets for good, supports people’s well-being and is climate friendly.”

We cannot wait for the next general election in the hope that Labour will implement its radical programme. We have to demand action on the housing crisis now. The pandemic has shown the health consequences of over-crowding and poor-quality housing.

Labour needs to act decisively now. In a letter from the Labour Campaign for Council Housing sent to party leader Sir Keir Starmer and deputy leader Angela Rayner, we wrote: “…We think that Labour should demand of the Tories now, what it committed to in its manifesto, that they should provide £10bn a year grant for new building of social rent council housing. This will not only address the housing crisis but will put back to work people thrown out of work as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown.”

Local authorities do not have the resources to manage a large increase in homeless families since the government abandoned the old system of paying for each household in temporary accommodation and imposed a fixed sum.

In its 2019 manifesto, Labour committed to building 150,000 council and housing association homes a year – at least 100,000 council homes. However, there is widespread support for the government to focus on funding new social rent homes. We can discuss the balance of funding between council and housing association homes, but at least £10bn for social rent homes is necessary to support funding their building.

Notwithstanding differences of emphases, we can all agree on the critical need for social rent homes”

Although the HCLG committee talks of social rent homes being funded alongside ‘affordable rent’ and shared ownership homes, it suggests that the term ‘affordable’ should not be used as a synonym for below market rent. It said that rents should be limited to no more than a third of household income.

Supporting the continuation of affordable rent stands in contradiction with this. We need to call time on affordable rent. The only reason it was introduced was to enable the government to cut grant. If there was sufficient grant for funding social rent homes, what would be the point of continuing with ‘affordable rent’?

The Labour Campaign for Council Housing is calling on Labour to mobilise a campaign that can bring together organisations which understand the need for a large-scale council housing programme.

As the HCLG committee has said, this cannot happen without a significant increase in government grant. Notwithstanding differences of emphases, we can all agree on the critical need for social rent homes.

The campaign is contacting MPs, constituency parties, trades unions and tenant organisations and calling on them to write to the leader and deputy leader to support this demand. The pandemic has highlighted the scale of the housing crisis. The crisis affords an opportunity to force the government into another U-turn.

Martin Wicks, Secretary, Labour Campaign for Council Housing

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