Towards a one nation housing policy

Yesterday the Labour Housing Group published its long-awaited ‘One Nation Housing Policy’ paper - ’50 Policies for Labour’ - beginning the process of providing Labour with a coherent housing strategy for the next General Election.

Yesterday the Labour Housing Group published its long-awaited ‘One Nation Housing Policy’ paper – ’50 Policies for Labour’ – beginning the process of providing Labour with a coherent housing strategy for the next General Election.

In recognition that the Con-Dem government’s housing policy has been a failure, the paper’s introduction states:

Despite all the talk, very few new homes are being built. Labour has an alternative, based on investment and on fairness. Investment in new homes promotes growth, creates jobs, reduces benefit bills, increases well-being and meets needs and aspirations. A growth strategy and switching subsidy ‘from benefits to bricks’ is the most effective way of bringing benefits down.’

‘This paper summarises 50 key policies we would like to see the Party pursue in Government, policies that will help home owners, private tenants, social tenants and people without a home. Labour believes in creating mixed and sustainable communities across the country – in cities towns and rural areas – with a wide range of types of housing, choice between tenures, and good care and support services.’

The paper’s 50 policies are sub-divided into nine policy areas – housing investment, planning for housing, tenure reform, private renting, social housing, home ownership, tax and benefits, homelessness and a ‘voice for tenants’. Watchwords throughout are investment, fairness and affordability, which are similar to the ‘flourishing, affordable, fair’ themes of a recent ‘thinkpiece’ for Compass by the Human City Institute.

The key strengths of the paper’s proposals are in tackling long-term dysfunctions in the UK’s housing system including enduringly low levels of housing investment and supply, the painfully slow planning process, problems of affordability across all tenures, anomalies in the tax and benefits system, unfairness between tenures and within renting (social and private), and the unaccountability to tenants and communities of much of social housing.

Proposals to place housing investment within a National Infrastructure Plan and moving such investment away from subsidies that support rents to those that stimulate house-building, so keeping rents down and reducing the housing benefit bill, are particularly innovative.

Alongside, the end of marketization and commercialisation of social housing is signalled with social landlords remaining not-for-profit, reinvesting any surpluses generated.

‘Smart’ national accounting is also advocated to come in line with international conventions on public borrowing and that recognises the contribution housing investment makes to savings in health, education and welfare budgets.

Imaginative ideas to make the home ownership sector more accessible to first-time buyers and less an investment opportunity for buy-to-let landlords include targeting help with deposits for new market entrants while discouraging mortgage provision for potential private landlords with priority given to the new build market.

The paper recommends sweeping away some of the Government’s welfare reforms, including the bedroom tax, but modifying others, such as regionalising the benefit cap. Alongside, there are proposals for the introduction of a mansion tax, new controls on foreign buyers in the prime property market and a fundamental review of property taxation and reliefs, including the first steps in updating the council tax and taxing capital gains on housing.

Proposals also focus on enhancing the lot of renters: concentrating on improving the security, management and quality of private rented housing, and up-scaling the accountability, governance, and efficiency of social landlords. Proposals to create greater cohesion between private and social renting standards are augmented by suggestions that seek to extended mutualism. Strengthening regulation of social landlords is put forward, including a beefed-up ombudsman service and statutory requirements for tenants to be involved in scrutiny.

Where the paper falls short is in effectively joining-up the 50 often disparate proposals, although there is time to address this deficiency.

For example, our Compass ‘thinkpiece’ recommended linking future funding for social housing to reducing tenure-based inequality and increasing asset ownership by creating a national Tenants Mutual to oversee newly created tenants’ asset accounts. This would help restore the self-esteem of tenants and the reputation of social housing, which have been badly damaged by attacks from the right-wing media and ministers alike, while tackling financial exclusion and creating an asset-owning democracy.

That having been said, the paper demonstrates a good deal more coherence than the government’s piecemeal, disjointed and patently unfair housing strategy.

It is based on a comprehensive review of the UK’s housing problems and seeks to sketch out how a ‘One Nation’ housing policy might work for the good of all. And so, it’s a good starting point for Labour.

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