Everyone knows we’re in the grip of a housing crisis that’s been years in the making. It’s the biggest issue facing my constituents in London: since I was elected as an MP in May, housing has been far and away the main concern in my surgeries. There are more people than ever on council waiting lists in London, huge numbers of people with insecure, short-term private tenancies, and a whole generation for whom owning their own home is currently an unattainable aspiration. The impacts of the crisis are wide-ranging and far-reaching – from the health consequences of poor quality homes, to children without the space at home to do their homework, and young people unable to put down roots because they continually have to move as each short-term tenancy comes to an end.
In this context, the government has announced a series of housing policies, the most high profile of which is the extension of the right-to-buy to housing association tenants, funded by the forced sale of council homes. This policy is designed to appeal to those in the midst of the crisis and opposing it is a conundrum for Labour. Right-to-buy speaks to many people’s individual hopes very directly and the Tories are already using it to question Labour’s commitment to ‘aspiration’. But we cannot equivocate on a policy which even the Daily Telegraph described as “economically illiterate and morally reprehensible”. The key to our opposition is understanding the aspirations it seeks to appeal to and unpacking its serious technical flaws. We must then propose better, more effective solutions and demonstrate at local level, the ways in which Labour can deliver.
First, we can oppose the extension of the right-to-buy on its own terms: ‘aspiration’. Aspirations for housing run both wide and deep – our desire for security, permanence, a place that we can make our own. These aspirations are for an essential standard of decency, affordability and security, whatever tenure type we live in or aspire to. By focusing their flagship policy on a group of people who are, on the whole, already well-housed in affordable homes and by funding this through the further forced sale of council homes, it will become harder for many more people to fulfil their own aspirations for a decent, affordable, rented home. It will add further pressure to the private rented sector, driving up private rents and making it even harder for private renters who want to buy their own home to save for a deposit. This policy will undermine the housing aspirations of many more people than it will deliver for.
Second, we must be clear how completely flawed this policy is technically. There are few in the housing sector who think that it is a good idea. It flies in the face of the Tories’ reliance on independent housing associations as the mainstay of the social housing sector since the 1990s. Extending the right-to-buy involves significant state intervention in the stock of independent housing associations and, by de-stabilising the asset base that they borrow against in order to invest in new homes, it will stop them from being part of the solution to the housing crisis. Unless the Tories are prepared to fund the provision of new homes up front, there can be no confidence that the homes sold will be replaced, as only 1 in 20 homes sold under right-to-buy since 1980 have been replaced to date. We need to work with a broad coalition of housing providers to make the case that this policy lacks competence and to propose alternative solutions.
Finally, Labour councils and mayors must demonstrate our commitment to tackling the housing crisis. We must show, not only that we understand housing aspirations, but that we can help our communities to realise them. The key to addressing the housing crisis is building more homes to rent and to buy across all housing tenures. Labour councils are already leading the way on the commitment to deliver new council homes, and on a proactive approach to planning which delivers new social housing via section 106 planning gain and the community infrastructure levy. From 2010-2014, Labour Southwark and Lambeth delivered 2570 and 2250 new affordable homes, while Tory Hammersmith and Fulham, Lib Dem Sutton and Green Brighton delivered just a fraction of these (500, 700 and 340 respectively). We should also be firm in our support at local level for models such as shared ownership and rent to buy, which enable people to save in order to buy their own home without any net loss of affordable housing, as well as more private sector homes, which will help to reduce the cost of buying for those who aspire to home ownership.
Labour must be resolute and unequivocal in our opposition to the extension of right-to-buy in London. Not because we question people’s aspiration to own their own home, but because housing aspirations are about decency and affordability as well as ownership and because extending the policy will thwart the aspirations of far more people than it will benefit. Most importantly, we can oppose this policy most effectively by demonstrating that we have more effective solutions to offer and that we are delivering them in local government.
Helen Hayes is MP for Dulwich and West Norwood and a member of the Communities and Local Government select committee.