It’s hard to believe that Britain’s economy is on the mend when living standards are falling for millions of people on middle and lower incomes. And it’s even harder to feel like you have a decent standard of living when you’re spending up to 43 per cent of your income on housing, as private renters do, or when the very idea of buying your own home one day seems as unlikely a possibility as owning a caravan on Mars.
So ahead of the living standards election of 2015, Labour needs to come up with the blueprints for a credible housing policy – one of the most urgent social justice issues facing Britain in the 21st century.
There are great challenges ahead but Emma Reynolds, the incoming shadow housing minister has reason to feel confident. Previously the shadow Europe minister, she is clearly one of Miliband’s rising stars and her appointment symbolises Labour’s reinvigorated commitment to housing. While she takes her place in Labour’s shadow cabinet in a promoted position, the Conservatives’ new appointment for housing Kris Hopkins has been demoted to undersecretary of state with fewer responsibilities for policymaking. Could this indicate an ill-advised relegation of housing on the government’s part?
In Emma’s first week in office, the government’s Help to Buy scheme is again making waves but it runs a real risk of further increasing house prices and doesn’t offer anything to those on lower incomes. Emma must be the voice of reason in this debate: her first task will be to instead argue the case for house building on a grand scale, turning Ed Milibands’ announcement that Labour would built 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 into an affordable and achievable policy offer.
To prove Britain can afford to build, Labour must shout from the rooftops that increasing the supply of new homes can produce major economic benefits and help to drive an economic recovery for the many, not just the mansion-dwellers. Shelter has found that every £1 spent on construction generates an additional £2.09 of economic output, higher than the return to most other sectors, including banking and finance.
As for achievability, we await Sir Michael Lyon’s policy review due next year which will likely recommend the expansion of places such as Stevenage and Basildon and building new towns on brownfield land. This would be an enormous undertaking, involving rigorous planning, high levels of state investment and compulsory purchases of land. A double policy whammy would be making sure the opportunities for employment and gaining skills are shared with local unemployed young people.
Even more importantly, Emma could also harness Labour’s zeal for localism by making local authorities and communities genuine partners in any new social housing initiative. To de-brief, Emma could have a quick read of Fabian work on social housing here. A policy to build more homes for social rent has arguably not been a part of British housing policy since Thatcher ended council borrowing rights in the 1980s. Emma’s predecessor Jack Dromey has said the party was “sympathetic” to the idea of lifting council borrowing caps to build more homes so it will be interesting to see if she runs with it.
Over the last fifteen years, the number of people who rent their home from a landlord has almost doubled to 8.5 million people, and nearly a third of renters are families with children. Improving the hand dealt to ‘generation rent’ is where Emma can have a big impact over the next 18 months, so it’s also worth her while reading Fabian pamphlet Homes for citizens.
Last week, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced a tenants’ charter for “new family-friendly tenancies in the private rented sector”. As she chooses Labour’s trump cards, Emma should take a moment to cast her eye over an article in the Fabian Review online by Teresa Pearce MP who makes Labour’s case for regulating private rents, longer term tenancies and a compulsory register for landlords. But Emma can, and should, go further than this. As Shelter argue, a tenants’ charter alone is not enough – we need legal and fiscal mechanisms to ensure it is followed.
There is tremendous scope to make housing policy a prism for the values that will underpin Labour’s offer to the electorate in 2015: better living standards on one hand, and a true sense of community, localism and solidarity on the other. Over to you, Emma.