The philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, put it rather well when he described the fundamental role that a home plays in people’s lives, saying: “The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”
Shadow housing and communities secretary Lisa Nandy may not have used such poetic flair in her remarks at Labour party conference this year, but in her commitment to the “idea of a home for life, handed on in common ownership to future generations” being “an idea worth fighting for”, she was echoing the same sentiment – that the dreams of millions of people across this country can be given shelter and space to grow if we tackle the housing crisis together.
It is fair to say that the Labour frontbench had been rather quiet when it came to housing since the big and bold 2019 manifesto commitments. There has been good work on ideas to reform compulsory purchase powers and the commitment of local leaders, such as Sadiq Khan and council leaders across the country, to build more genuinely affordable homes is making a difference. But it was welcome to hear more about how a future Labour government would take on the challenge of housing if it were elected.
As someone who leads a not-for-profit housing organisation, it is music to my ears to hear senior politicians talking about the need to build more social housing. Labour could not have been clearer in its commitment to “rebuild our social housing stock”. The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has also spoken of the need to build far more social housing, so the apparent political consensus on the issue is welcome. However, what is key is how these positive words translate into action.
How a future Labour government could build the social housing we need was the theme of a fringe discussion that I was pleased to take part in, with the support of the Fabian Society, at conference.
Not-for-profit housing associations’ number one priority will always be the safety and quality of the existing homes we provide. London’s leading housing associations, The G15, invested almost £900m last year in repairs, maintenance, and improvement works for residents’ homes. We know there is more to do to across social housing to improve the services people receive and to address issues such as damp and mould, as well as to listen better to residents’ voices. Yet, to address these issues, alongside tackling overcrowding and replacing homes that are no longer fit for purpose, we must continue to build the homes that are so desperately needed.
Housing associations play a vital role in building homes. More than one in five of all new homes built in the last five years were built by housing associations, compared to just 4 per cent being provided by councils. We fully support the renaissance in council home building, and housing associations work closely with many local authorities to share expertise and to bring forward new homes.
What is clear though is that it will take the commitment and contribution of a range of providers – public, not-for-profit, and the private sector too – to meet the growing need for the most affordable types of homes. Enfield Council leader Nesil Caliskan made this point clearly during the fringe event, saying that to get the homes her borough needs, she will work with anyone to build decent homes. That approach will be vital to any government seeking to build more affordable and good quality new homes.
There is real interest across the sector in the ‘re-tenuring’ aspect of Labour’s ambitions to make social housing the second largest tenure. A well-regulated and fairer private rented sector is a vital part of the housing eco-system, but clearly former social rent homes being allowed to sit in absentee landlords’ hands to decay, whilst rents spiral, as is all too often the case, simply is not making best use of the existing homes we have.
Likewise, Labour’s pledge to create 1.5 million new homeowners was a welcome recognition from the party that this remains the ambition of many people. In truth, it will be extremely hard to ever build all the social rent homes required to fully meet levels of need. That is why, as part of this commitment to grow homeownership, we need to look at how we can provide a stepping stone for people towards meeting their ambition, including through shared ownership.
It will take the efforts of all of those who are committed to giving people the chance to live well – to dream in peace, as Bachelard said – if we are to tackle the housing crisis. With nobody sure when a general election may be, Labour cannot wait to build on the strong foundations it has begun to lay out for its housing approach.