We must give communities a voice on housing, writes Sarah Jones MP
In the last edition of the Fabian Review, Steve Hilditch wrote a convincing analysis of the housing crisis and Labour housing policy. One line in particular stands out after the disaster at Grenfell Tower.
Steve called for a ‘revolution in standards’ for tenants: ‘We don’t accept hazardous food or cars, why allow hazardous homes? ‘The tragic prescience of these words make it all the more important that those of us entering parliament keep them front of mind.
In the coming weeks and months much will be written, rightly, about building regulations and product standards. But problems with housing in the UK go much deeper than cladding. We need to look at why these problems were not addressed and give a voice to those who have been silenced.
The Queen’s Speech, like the Conservative manifesto which preceded it and the White Paper on housing which preceded that, featured glaring omissions as well as policies which entirely fail to grasp the scale and nature of the dual crises of housing supply and housing standards.
People can see the scale of government failure on housing since 2010. Labour must be alive to that collective epiphany. If I’ve learned one thing in my first few weeks as an MP it is that issues rise and fall not just on their merit, but on the ability of MPs to seize the day and not let opportunities pass by. Housing must be an even more central issue for our party as we move forward.
Our housing policies resonated with so many voters at the general election because they reflected the scale of the challenge we face.
In Croydon Central, I stood against the sitting housing minister, Gavin Barwell. Housing was one of our most prominent issues, not least because voters raised the issue themselves so regularly. An independent candidate even quit his job as an estate agent to run on a single issue platform: housing.
I have no doubt that a surge in young voters and private renters, angry at a government and a housing minister who had failed to stand up for them, played a part in Labour’s victory in Croydon. The problems of the 67,000 Croydon residents privately renting, paying extortionate amounts for often poor conditions, were acknowledged by the Tories but not addressed.
I worked in the housing sector before coming into parliament – running campaigns at Shelter and as a director in a housing association. You don’t have to work in housing long to understand the catastrophic collective failure of the state to create the conditions where we can build the homes we need, protect those who find themselves homeless, give any kind of voice to those languishing in bad housing or take responsibility for creating decent as well as affordable homes. There is no simple funding stream and no national coordinated strategy. It is Tory, small-state government at its most pernicious.
Housing associations are building where they can, but as major landlords dealing with welfare reform, the rent cap and right to buy, there are limits on what they can do. Many councils, like Croydon, are leading the way by stimulating an increase in affordable housebuilding capacity. Croydon is investing directly through its own development company, Brick by Brick. But they have one hand tied behind their back as government won’t allow them to borrow against existing stock, even when that borrowing is for investment in new homes. Meanwhile the freedoms of permitted development allow private developers to build inappropriate housing developments in my constituency, with the council or anyone else powerless to oversee (or act on) standards.
Labour is giving this issue the time and focus it deserves. We have pledged a new Department for Housing and to build 100,000 council and housing association homes a year for genuinely affordable rent or sale. But we also need a more fundamental debate about giving people and communities the voice they deserve – on housing and a whole host of other issues. The anger at not being heard and the collective failure of politicians to listen, contributed to Brexit. It also contributed to the youth vote surge at the recent election and Labour must act or we will lose that support.
Some of the debate on housing is about funding. But it is also about reform – we must take a stand for real change. We need to allow councils to build and to give communities a real stake, and a real voice, in this debate, regardless of property value. Only then can we have the chance of achieving the revolution in housing standards and supply which is so desperately needed by so many.