There is no doubt about it. The UK is in the midst of a housing crisis. For years we have not built enough housing and at the same time we have changed dramatically as a society. People are now living longer than ever, the majority of fatal diseases have almost been eradicated and at the same time immigration has increased to the UK year on year.
We also live in a society where more people are likely to live alone. The housing crisis affects us all in different ways. For example, those struggling to pay the rent or saving for a mortgage are less likely to spend their money on luxuries or at a local business. In turn, those businesses lose business from people who are forced to save their money as rents rise each year. For 6 years the Tories have not offered any solution to this as we see homelessness rise to disgraceful levels. I believe that Labour can offer real radical solutions to the housing crisis that can reach out to a broader audience.
The Tories answer to this crisis is to build, build and build. For those of us who are councillors, we regularly hear worries about how fast we are building properties without putting in the infrastructure to cope with a rising population. In my home town of Colchester, we are now the largest growing town in the UK. Despite this rise, in the last 10 years we have not seen a new secondary school, the roads are congested every day and GP surgeries are quickly filling up.
No consideration for new schools, medical centres, community centres and even roads have been considered and no help has been given to the Local and County councils to resolve this. We will sadly see the school budget cut for County Councils so the potential for a new school is very unlikely. At the same time local councils are forced to build a certain amount of housing each year in their ‘Local Plan’. If a council does not have a local plan, then the government will allow developers to build wherever they like. This puts more pressure than ever on our councils, who are all being forced to accept large numbers of housing but with no adequate time to plan for the services needed. Instead we end up with large soulless housing estates.
What can Labour do?
Firstly Labour needs to relax the laws for councils to once again start building social housing. With the current cap on Social Housing rents, councils are restrained in how much social housing they can start building. Labour then has to look at making any large estate have 25% social housing rather than the current system, which only requires ‘affordable housing’ but no social housing.
As it stands, it is estimated that people send almost 70% of their wages in the private rented sector. This once again comes back to the issue with people not being able to spend as much money to help local businesses and stimulate the economy. t also offers families safety if someone does lose their job. In the private rented sector, if you do lose your job you could easily be 2 months away from homelessness. This is not provided by in the private sector.
The Housing benefit bill is also alleviated by social housing. If you are on housing benefit but in the private rented sector it is likely that you will be claiming far more than the property is worth to pay the rent. All this money comes out of the public purse. However if you are in social housing this money would go back into the public purse rather than a private landlord. With the levels of homelessness we are seeing social housing would be one of the antidotes. So many of these families who now have to reside in temporary accommodation could simply no longer afford to rent in the private sector. Social Housing not only offers a lifeline for people in this situation but a chance to plan for the future without worrying about eviction.
However, Labour will need to focus on more than just getting the houses built to meet the demand. We also need to look at a vision of how Britain will look in the future and give more powers back to councils. Councils should have the choice of how their town/community looks in the next 20 years. That means a commitment to infrastructure including schools, community centres, parks and leisure and commercial facilities, while making sure that the developer does not try to weasel out of paying its S106 contribution.
Many of us will have seen the last episode of Planet Earth and been astounded by Singapore. In that case there was a vision and a commitment to protecting the environment. Labour needs to look for this model, although possibly not as extravagant. More than ever I have talked to people of all political persuasions who worry what will be left for their grandchildren to enjoy in the future. Once we start building over natural wildlife it is gone forever. The Tories may be building the houses but Labour can offer the houses with a vision that looks after the environment and offers the services that are the cornerstone to building a community.
Labour also needs to take a more robust stance on rogue landlords. This does not mean attacking all landlords as there are some perfectly responsible landlords out there. In fact landlords who have had their property trashed by previous tenants should be helped in recouping costs for this. However, many of us will have seen some of the squalor that some landlords allow their properties to fall into. This includes vast quantities of mould, refusing to repair anything that is broken and even renting out a sitting-room as a bedroom to increase their earnings.
Many of us will also be aware of landlords who live on the other side of the country to their properties and pay no attention to them. This has to stop. More protection is needed for tenants so they will not be threatened with eviction if they complain and councils also need more power to fine landlords who do not respond to warnings about the condition of their property. I would even go as far as to introduce a 3 warning rule, where if after 3 warnings the landlords has not responded or addressed any issues raised by the local council then that council can repossess that property. We also need to put an end to landlords who only accept people on housing and job seekers benefit. These landlords regularly charge extortionate prices for a dilapidated property as they prey on the desperate. At the same time the costs all end up being paid by the taxpayer and a family is made to live in squalor.
The rent cap idea has come up regularly over the last few years and is currently being mooted by Sadiq Khan. When we see landlords proudly boasting of the millions they make from properties in London from their tenants we need to seriously consider how we can make this workable. It would be a popular idea for many, especially those young families looking to save up for a mortgage while renting. Berlin have successfully implemented this and it is certainly a model that Labour should be looking at.