Manifesto Watch: Housing

by Adam Johannes, Tom Gann, Alyson Macdonald, the PPR Project, Philippa from Barnet Housing Action

What are the main UK parties promising in order to tackle the housing crisis? Housing activists give their views.

First published: 04 May, 2015 | Category: Activism, Housing, Politics

The recent explosion of housing activism reflects an almost complete lack of action among mainstream politicians to address the housing crisis.  Housing activists have exposed, opposed and resisted the eviction of council tenants, the displacement of people from their homes as a result of ‘regeneration’ schemes, the bedroom tax and benefit caps, and the problems of a precarious, expensive private rental market. The energy, commitment and creativity of these campaigns has forced housing onto the political agenda, and the fact that almost all of the mainstream UK parties now include it in their election manifestos is testament to this.

The election pledges are, in many ways, predictable. There is an emphasis on home ownership across nearly all manifestos, with the Tories, unsurprisingly, making it the focus of their policies. The Liberal Democrats put forward various tame, tinkering-round-the-edges proposals for reform, while Labour propose some control of the private rental market as well as committing to building more social housing, and the SNP make some proposals for affordable rent. Plaid Cymru and the Green Party put forward policies that go some way to shifting emphasis away from home ownership and towards social housing and tighter controls of the private rental market. In Northern Ireland, where there is an acute housing shortage, a commitment to more social housing is made by all parties apart from the DUP, with Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance Party putting forward various ideas on house building and regulating private sector renting. 

Below, five activists from different housing activist groups across the UK respond to these proposals. Although London has dominated many recent discussions in the media, the housing crisis has been felt sharply across the UK, varying in character from region to region, and this is reflected in the responses below. What is emphasised across the board is the urgent need to end the commodification of housing and to treat housing as a basic human right. 

Responding to the manifestos are: 

Adam Johannes from South Wales Against the Bedroom Tax and Cardiff People's Assembly

Tom Gann from South London Renters, which organises to improve the conditions of private renting in South London

Alyson Macdonald, a member of the Living Rent Campaign, which was formed in 2014 to fight for rent control and better legal protections for private tenants in Scotland, and now has branches in four cities.

The Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) organisation, which works to support people in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland to make their socio-economic rights real and assert their right to participate in government decisions which affect their lives.

Philippa, from Barnet Housing Action, which has been providing support to residents of the London Borough of Barnet, who are affected by the housing crisis and the Local Council's housing policies, since early 2014.

 


 

Adam Johannes, South Wales Against the Bedroom Tax and Cardiff People's Assembly

In 2015 hardly any social housing is being built in Wales. The last Tory government devastated social housing, with right-to-buy leading to almost half of council housing stock going out of circulation and growing waiting lists, while the current Tory government has seen Wales hit harder by the bedroom tax than any other part of the UK. Tenants have been told to find extra money from nowhere, or to move to smaller houses that don’t exist - or face eviction.  If the Tories win again then the situation is bleak, with an end to housing benefit for most 18-25 year olds, no action on private landlords, and another wave of attack on social housing with right-to-buy extended to  force councils to sell off homes in more desirable areas, whilst forcing housing associations into right-to-buy. Every housing campaigner has a duty to try and make sure Tory and LibDem MPs lose their seats.

Welsh Labour’s pledge to end right-to-buy if they win the assembly elections is a welcome move. Welsh Labour has often been a disappointment, failing to follow the example of Scotland and effectively end the bedroom tax, thousands are now are only paying the bedroom tax because of Labour inaction. Nevertheless Labour's manifesto pledge to end the bedroom tax, won by grassroots campaigners, is welcome. For the first time in years, Labour is making noises about building social housing and regulating the private rental sector.  In the event of a Labour government housing campaigners must be ready to push for more.

Plaid put on record consistent opposition to the bedroom tax and support for no eviction policies, arguing for rent controls to regulate private rents and more social housing building. They call for more tenant rights and action on second homes and empty homes. They also wish to see more regulation of housing to defend the Welsh language. Many rural communities across the UK face the issue of locals being priced out of the local housing market, and in Wales there is the added dimension of the Welsh language with new residents rarely learning the language. Not much to argue with.

UKIP,  who have never supported social housing, seek to use housing to divide people by calling for councils to prioritise people with “strong local connections” when making housing allocations, rather than prioritising by need. The housing crisis wasn’t caused by immigrants though, but by Tory and Labour neoliberal governments.

Greens and socialist candidates put forward the boldest policies, around mass council house building and regulating private landlords, but significant votes for them in Wales are unlikely. Nevertheless they have played leading roles in grassroots housing campaigns.  

Building thousands of council homes every year is realistic, affordable and achievable. People will grasp that, especially if you point out this actually happened for thirty years between, 1945, when the economy was in a worse state than it is now, and 1979 when Thatcher radically changed how our society addresses housing.

 


 

Tom Gann from South London Renters

One of the two main housing focuses for the Tories is home ownership (the other is the intensification of their hatred for poor children). The Tories foreground their “long-term economic plan” as offering continued low mortgage rates, clarifying the clear antagonism between mortgage-holders in whose interest austerity is being imposed and almost everyone else. The Greens, more equitably, understanding that even a small increase in interest rates could see hundreds of thousands struggling to pay mortgages, are proposing a “right to rent” which would see councils stepping in to allow people to stay in their homes. 

The Tories will further help existing home owners through Help to Buy (also supported by Labour), the most significant impact of which will be further to inflate house prices. The Greens will abandon Help to Buy, believing, rightly, that it “does nothing to help those in the greatest housing need”. Labour have also promised to remove stamp duty for first time buyers of homes worth up to £300,000 – although research suggests that lowering stamp duty may not help first time buyers as prices may rise in response, again making this policy at least as much about maintaining or inflating house prices as benefitting first time buyers. Home ownership will also be supported in an unsustainable and socially corrosive way by Tory and UKIP right-to-buy policy at substantial discounts to social housing (council and housing association) tenants. 

Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are all committed to building a “new generation of garden cities”, or, to be more accurate, dreary, car dependent, middle-class dormitory suburbs. The “garden” aspect is an appeal to sentimental antiurbanism in weakening planning regulations to “pander” (Richard Rogers) to developers for whom it’s more profitable to build on greenfield land.

The Liberal Democrats promise 300,000 new homes a year, and Labour 1,000,000 by 2020. The Tories promise 200,000 “starter homes” over the next five years. All of these, though, are to be built for profit, with the interests of developers determining cost, size and location. By contrast, the Greens will build 500,000 council houses by 2020, which would go some way to solving the housing crisis. However, the number remains inadequate, the council house waiting list for England stood at over 1.8 million households in 2012 before the localism act allowed councils to remove large numbers of households. Labour’s promise to “reform the council house financing system” offers hope for some new council houses.

Benefits, rather than housebuilding policies, will have a greater effect on access to housing (excluding the Greens). Tory proposals to reduce the benefit cap to £23,000 a year will make all of London (and other expensive areas of the country) unaffordable for families with children. The Tory spatial revolution – socially cleansing the poor, particularly the poor with children from desirable areas – will barely be countered by Labour who propose to keep the current £26,000 benefit cap. The Tories’ promise to fund the right-to-buy discount by forcing councils to sell better quality council houses in better locations will further accelerate this. 

The Tories, moreover, propose to remove housing benefit entitlement for 18-21 year-olds. This will see, at best, the loading of more costs and stresses onto families, and at worst destitution for young people unable, for whatever reason, to rely on their parents. Labour, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens promise to abolish the bedroom tax.

The Tories offer nothing for private renters but the chance for the relatively privileged to escape through Help to Buy. The Green and, to a slight extent, Labour proposals to build council houses offer a better way to escape this exploitation. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens all offer a range of useful but limited reforms to private renting, offering more secure tenancies and limited rent controls: “multi-year tenancies” (Liberal Democrats), three years (Labour), and five (Greens). The Greens propose limits on annual rent increases, as do Labour and the Liberal Democrats, both of whom propose to limit rent increases during but not outside of tenancies to inflation. What the Labour policy means is that tenants will be able to enjoy a far greater level of stability for the three years of the tenancy, though this will depend on in what circumstances landlords are able to evict (in Labour’s original proposals, landlords were to be allowed to evict to refurbish properties, and in a rapidly gentrifying area with substantial increases in rents they may find this attractive). However, at the end of the tenancy the landlord is free to set the rents at whatever level s/he wishes. What may prove most useful about Labour’s policies, is that government intervention, even in such a timid way, in the level of private rents establishes a principle that makes demands for more effective rent control appear plausible. Labour and the Greens also promise to ban letting agent fees to tenants.

It is an achievement of housing campaigners that the housing crisis is an electoral battleground. No party, however, offers policies that would resolve it in the interests of those most affected. The Greens remain timid – the number of council houses they will build is inadequate to need and their rent control policies will not see rents fall. Labour offer a few useful reforms, particularly for private renters, but do little to challenge what capital and Tory policy have done to housing. Tory policy, if implemented, will deepen the housing crisis many face, with them resolving the crisis in the interests of those who already own a home, landlords and developers.

 


 

Alyson Macdonald from the Living Rent Campaign in Scotland

Housing is one of the policy areas devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so the party in power at Westminster won’t have any direct influence over the situation for private tenants north of the border – but with the next Holyrood elections scheduled for 2016 these manifestos give us an idea of the pledges we can expect next year. 

We were unimpressed – but unsurprised – to find the Tory manifesto concentrating on plans to help first-time buyers, with no proposals to support private tenants. Their plans to extend the Help to Buy  scheme will only benefit more affluent tenants, and, by keeping property prices unrealistically inflated, will keep rents at unaffordable levels. At the same time their proposal to extend right-to-buy to housing association tenants will reduce the number of secure, affordable homes available in the social rented sector. The manifesto doesn’t even mention private tenants, but it still manages to make plenty of proposals which would be detrimental to us. 

UKIP’s housing plans are similar to the Tories’, only with added xenophobia. Their manifesto pledges concentrate on making home ownership more accessible, but only for British citizens. 

The Lib Dem manifesto has a list of policies which could benefit private tenants, but some of the suggestions are quite vague. Disappointingly, their plans for landlord registration and licensing aren’t compulsory, and they only propose to ban letting agency fees if they aren’t reduced to an unspecified “affordable” level. As a Scottish campaign group, we found it strange to see these policies in a manifesto: we’ve had compulsory landlord registration for years, letting agents who charge fees face a £1000 fine, and there are mechanisms which allow tenants to withhold rent from landlords who don’t carry out repairs. In our experience, these provide only minimal protection for tenants, and while they might look like a small step forward for tenants in the rest of the UK, we were underwhelmed. 

Like the Lib Dems, Labour seem to have borrowed some of their ideas from the current legislation in Scotland, proposing a ban on letting agency fees and a national register of landlords. They also suggest letting local authorities increase council tax on empty properties, which is another policy that’s already in place here, and has been very successful for the few local authorities who’ve taken it up. The suggestion for three-year tenancies with a cap on rent increases would give tenants a lot more security, but we don’t think it goes far enough. 

The Green Party’s proposals almost sound like something we might have written ourselves (and not just because the words ‘Living Rent’ appear in several places). Their plans contain a lot of detail compared to the other parties’ manifestos, and we like their ideas about increasing the supply of social housing – which would be a better fit for many long-term renters – while regulating the private sector and abolishing tax breaks for landlords. Our main criticism is that their plans for rent control involve a cap on rent increases linked to inflation: it isn’t particularly helpful when rents are already unaffordable, and nobody’s wages are rising as fast as inflation. 

The SNP manifesto is very short on detail, although if you’re feeling charitable you might decide that this is because it’s a devolved issue, so there’s no point in putting forward detailed proposals in a Westminster election. However, we would question whether the “affordable homes for rent” that they want to build would be in the social or private sector. We’re also critical of their support for Help to Buy, as it only helps a minority while further disadvantaging those who can’t escape the private rented sector.

 


 

Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR), Northern Ireland 

Participation and the Practice of Rights supports the ‘Equality Can’t Wait’ campaign, which is made up of people on the social housing waiting list in the most deprived areas of Belfast. The group are campaigning for more social housing and for a timetabled resourced strategy to tackle the internationally recognised issue of housing inequality in North Belfast.

The SDLP, Sinn Féin, Alliance, UUP, TUV and the Green Party all refer to increasing the number of social housing units, but the devil is in the detail. Inequalities in access to public housing are widely known to be contributing factors to the outbreak of the conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. In North Belfast, where the Equality Can’t Wait campaign originated, religious inequality in housing remains a long-standing and chronic problem. There is a need for 666 additional homes in Catholic areas to meet the current need, while in Protestant areas there are surplus homes (see Equality Can’t Wait’s Surrounded by Land Report for more detail). This part of the city experienced some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, and due to ongoing tensions remains highly segregated along religious lines. The United Nations has intervened twice on this inequality in the last five years, most recently in the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing following her official visit to the UK in 2014. Despite this, the issue does not appear in any manifesto as a priority to be addressed. 

Several parties (DUP, Alliance, UKIP) support the repeal or abolition of the ‘spare room subsidy’ or bedroom tax, although it is actually not in place in Northern Ireland at this time.

International human rights standards state that for a house to be deemed adequate it should be habitable, affordable and include security of tenure. Many of the people we work with turn reluctantly to the private sector for housing, often experiencing unaffordable rents, insecurity of tenure, unacceptable conditions and unresponsive landlords. Sinn Féin seeks to introduce rent controls, while the SDLP favour licensing landlords and letting agents “to ensure they are fully informed of their duties”. Alliance’s approach is more detailed, committing to supporting legislation to regulate the private rented sector to increase security of tenure, improve standards and reducing upfront fees. Legislation such as this would go a long way towards realising the rights of the people we work with, if it was effectively implemented on the ground. 

The manifesto of the Alliance party is notable for its heavy emphasis on the need to prioritise shared housing. This is a misinterpretation of what the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement actually states.  While tackling inequality and promoting good relations between communities in NI are complementary duties, the law very clearly and deliberately gives priority to the tackling of inequality.  As the late Mo Mowlam, former Secretary of State said in 1998 ‘Good relations cannot be built on inequality’. Those who have been left behind by the peace process, deserve to have their human right to an adequate home finally realised. 

One of these people is Elinor, a mother of 2 from West Belfast, who has spent a lifetime in hostels, is now homeless again after the damp, two-bedroom property she lived in was declared unfit for purpose by the NIHE. She and others in the Equality Can’t Wait campaign launched the ‘Surrounded by Land’ report last month, which demonstrated there was sufficient money and land to meet the need for housing. At the launch, Elinor said:

“We are always told the same thing: ‘your area of choice is high demand’. We met with senior officials who told us there is no land to build on in North and West Belfast, but that is not true. There is land. There is money. What we need is action to build quality homes for families instead of throwing people into short-term fixes in hostels”.

 


 

Philippa on behalf of Barnet Housing Action Group 

The main positive manifesto pledges, in our opinion, relate to the improvement of tenants’ rights, i.e. the implementation of rent caps, increase in security of tenure and in standards of accommodation provided, as specified by the Green Party. The Labour Party pledges in this area are not nearly bold enough, but they are a start.

Positive implementation of rent controls and caps could remedy many of the housing issues we face. It would mean that being a buy-to-let landlord is less viable and less lucrative, thereby releasing properties to the market for people to buy them to actually live in, rather than use them to make an income. Intervention in the broken property market is imperative, in our opinion.

Additionally, we welcome the pledge of taking action to bring empty properties back into use, especially given that it is said that for every homeless person there are ten empty properties.

For many people, the only option is to rent in the private sector. Council housing is in such short supply due to the legacy of Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme, reserved only for the neediest. The supply is being depleted further by flawed “regenerations” and the continuing promotion of the right-to-buy with excessive discounts available. Many are priced out of buying their own property by greedy, rich, profiteering buy-to-let landlords and overseas (buy-to-leave) investors who snap up properties with ease. In most cases, tenants pay more in rent than they would on a mortgage, but would not be able to secure the mortgage even though they are effectively paying it. It is a win-win situation for the ever growing number of landlords. Given that property prices in London are increasing at c.20%pa, it is the one of the most profitable (and low risk) worldwide investments that can be made. Property developers are keen to exploit these investors in their pursuit of profit maximisation, ignoring the people who actual need the homes.

We need to see housing policies which dis-incentivise such behaviour: the imposition of a landlord tax; a special levy on rental income and property investment companies; financial penalties for leaving properties empty; a restructure of council tax bands and rent caps/controls. Additionally, we should perhaps consider some sort of restriction of the number of properties a person may own, as they have in France.

The present system sees the very richest sucking tax-payer money by the billions in the form of Housing Benefit. Rent caps and an increase in the supply of council housing would serve to reduce this bill. Our local council (Barnet) pays “Landlord Incentives” of c. £2k per landlord (FOI: £698k in the year 2013-14) to those private landlords willing to let their property via the council. These funds, along with a generous grant scheme (of £25k-£38k) available to landlords of properties in disrepair could be invested far better than by lining the pockets of the already rich.

With people so desperate for a roof over the heads, coupled with the shortage of supply, many are willing to accept below standard accommodation in order to live somewhere least expensive, resulting in overcrowded (ten doorbells on many three-bed houses), damp, dirty, poorly maintained, squalid conditions. This is not acceptable in this day and age.

The ever decreasing number of council homes available is exacerbating the problem as well as the unfairness and divisions in our society i.e. envy between who gets housed. Sham “regenerations” of council estates which consistently result in a reduction in the number of council homes, or a complete elimination of them: transferring (only) secure tenants to Housing Association properties, with non-secure tenants dispersed and displaced far and wide. Those who are fortunate enough to be housed in council housing are likely to find themselves on long term non-secure or temporary tenancies. This is highly damaging for the well-being of people affected and none of the parties seem to be seeking to address this. 

The term “affordable” needs to be reclaimed, as we can’t afford it. Linking to a percentage of a local median wage seems to be a reasonable proposal (say 35-40%), as put forward by the Greens. No more right-to-buy: it is not sustainable and we are suffering the legacy. It is merely a bribe for votes – it worked under Thatcher, let’s hope it doesn't work this time. The Help-to-buy scheme has further fuelled property price escalation across the term of this parliament. It is highly unfair and inappropriate that landlords / buy-to-let investors were not excluded from this scheme.

We need a brave government which will take measures to intervene in a broken housing market. One which will take steps which may result in a property market crash, but will be ready to assist those who as a result fall into difficulty to stay in their homes – i.e. the right to rent scheme outlined by the Green Party.

We all have a basic right to a warm, secure, genuinely affordable home. It is not a basic right of landlords and investors to become ever richer. Whichever party promises to correct the balance here gets our vote.

And of course: BUILD COUNCIL HOUSES!!

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