Well, it’s brief, and says nothing that hasn’t been said before; so let’s get the housing component of the Labour Party Manifesto – published today under the title For the Many Not the Few – out of the way.
Titled ‘Secure Homes for All’, its focus is on house building, rightly identifying the housing crisis as one of affordability, but wrongly identifying the building of new homes as the solution. To this end the Manifesto promises the by-now familiar figure of 1 million new homes over the next Parliament should Labour be elected to power. And what will a Labour government build? 100,000 council and housing association homes a year, so half the five-year total, just as we have previously been told. And what will those homes be? For ‘genuinely affordable rent or sale.’
Let’s just pause here. Housing associations are not government run so half of these homes – in the absence of precise figures let’s say 50,000 per year – will be built by them to fit their requirements as private companies; though no doubt they will continue to receive the considerable subsidies they currently receive from central government agencies like the Homes and Communities Agency that the Manifesto promises to overhaul. So will a Labour government only provide those subsidies for the building of homes for social rent? The manifesto doesn’t say, and in the absence of any indication to the contrary we must assume housing associations will continue to receive public subsidies for building homes for affordable rent or sale at up to 80 per cent of market rate, for London living rent at a third of the borough’s average household income (so £680 per month per person in the borough of Haringey, £770 in Hackney, £895 in Lambeth, £950 in Southwark, and £1,170 in Tower Hamlets), for 25 per cent shared ownership, for shared equity, and anything else they can think of to supplant the council homes for social rent housing associations are either privatising or demolishing and building in their place. Indeed, ‘affordable’ is the only tenancy type and rental level the manifesto mentions.
So what of the other half of this half a million homes, the 50,000 council homes a year? To this end a Labour government will establish a new Department for Housing – in the words of the Manifesto – ‘to focus on tackling the crisis and to ensure housing is about homes for the many, not investment opportunities for the few’. We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. Except that council homes are not affordable housing, not even for ‘genuinely affordable rent or sale’. Council homes are, or were, exclusively built for rent at around 30 per cent of market rate, which is uniformly, although confusingly, referred to these days as ‘social rent’ – particularly in local authority planning documents identifying their demolition and replacement by, again, homes for affordable rent, London living rent, affordable sale, shared ownership, shared equity and, of course, private sale – which, as in the Labour Manifesto, make up by far the largest proportion of new-build homes. Despite its vague promise to build ‘council homes for rent and sale’, the Labour Manifesto says nothing about building council homes for social rent.
What it does talk about is ‘Home Ownership’, the title of the next section. The other half of the 1 million homes a Labour government promises to build is, of course, made up of homes for private sale, so it’s understandable that these take precedence. The Manifesto promises ‘low-cost homes’ for ‘first-time buyers’, much like the Conservative government’s policy of Starter Homes. By this the Tories meant new-build properties capped at £450,000. Does the Labour Party regard this as ‘low cost’? The Manifesto doesn’t say. What it does say is that it will build these low-cost homes ‘just as Labour councils have been doing right across the country.’ So, let’s look at what homes for private sale Labour councils have been building, and get an idea of what the Manifesto means by ‘low cost’.
In Trafalgar Place at the Elephant and Castle Southwark Labour council in partnership with property developer Lendlease have built 2-bedroom apartments that start at £725,000 on the ruins of the demolished Heygate estate. Transparency International recently reported that every one of the properties on the first phase of the redevelopment has been bought by oversees investors. On Woodberry Down in Manor House Hackney Labour council in collaboration with property developer Berkeley Homes is building 2-bedroom apartments that start at £660,000. 55 per cent of the properties on the first completed phase have been bought by overseas investors. In Kidbrooke Village Greenwich Labour council, again in collaboration with Berkeley Homes, has built 2-bedroom apartments for £540,000 on the demolished Ferrier estate. And on the condemned Cressingham Gardens estate Lambeth Labour council – in a redevelopment vehicle directly backed by Jeremy Corbyn – is promising to build new properties for private sale that will start at £435,000 for a 1 bedroom apartment rising to £863,000 for a 4 bedroom property. So maybe the comparison with the Conservative government’s policy on Starter Homes is inaccurate only in that it undervalues the cost of these ‘low cost’ homes. Labour are limiting Help to Buy funding for first-time buyers of such properties to households earning up to £100,000 per year. We’ll leave it to you to judge whether this is building ‘homes for the many’ rather than ‘investment opportunities for the few’.
The next section is titled ‘Private Renters’, the fastest rising market in UK accommodation. Because of the lack of council housing for social rent – which is being further reduced by the council estate demolition programme being implemented across the UK but concentrated in London because of the huge profits – 20 per cent of British households now rent from private landlords, compared to just 17 per cent from social landlords – housing associations making up 9 per cent of that, and only 8 per cent living in council flats and paying social rent. So while the Manifesto’s pledge to introduce three-year tenancies for private renters, place a cap on rent rises, and ban letting agency fees is welcome, this only attempts to address the private market, which accounts for the vast majority of the £20.9 billion the UK spends per year on housing benefit. What it doesn’t address is the lack of alternative rented accommodation in the public sector, or the erosion of that 8 per cent by the nation-wide council estate regeneration programme.
So maybe the next section, titled ‘Council and Social Tenants’, will provide the solution. Perhaps here is where we will read the Labour Party’s commitment to build slightly more than the half of the half of the 1 million new homes it has promised. Perhaps this is where we will see laid out in clear terms the tenancy and rental levels so desperately needed by the 1.9 million households on the UK housing waiting list, the 280,000 households at risk of homelessness, and the 71,500 households living in temporary accommodation who can’t afford the new homes being built by Labour councils for three-quarters of a million quid?
Well, the pledge to ‘remove government restrictions that stop councils building homes’ is a good start – though perhaps if the Manifesto clarified those restrictions as including that on councils borrowing in order to build council homes for social rent this pledge would carry more weight. And the Manifesto also promises to reverse some of the housing legislation brought into law by Conservative governments, including ditching the phasing out of secure tenancies on council flats, scrapping the bedroom tax on council tenants, and suspending the Right to Buy council homes. But beside this ditching, scrapping and suspending, nothing is said about stopping the nation-wide estate demolition programme being carried out predominantly by Labour councils. Instead, all we get is a repetition of the pledge to build ‘genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy’.
And that’s it. There’s a further section on ‘Homelessness’, but nothing about the role of Labour housing policy in producing it. The pledge to make 4,000 homes available for people with a history of rough sleeping is welcome, but nothing is said about Labour councils criminalising rough sleepers with Public Space Protection Orders, closing down homeless hostels and selling the land off to private developers, or using anti-homeless architecture to drive rough sleepers out of their boroughs. Nothing is said about ditching, scrapping and suspending these practices and the laws created by the Conservative government and embraced by Labour councils to accommodate them.
And that really is it. There’s nothing we haven’t heard before on Labour housing policy; nothing promised that isn’t already being delivered by Labour councils across the country; and nothing said – not one word of hope – for the hundreds of thousands of Londoners facing the demolition, privatisation and social cleansing of their homes by the national programme of estate regeneration. No wonder the Labour Party unanimously agreed to this Manifesto: for Labour and Conservative councils alike it’s very much business as usual.
This is a Manifesto to nothing, a final throw of the dice in the wager Jeremy Corbyn has been playing with the British public, hoping that his image of a social democratic government will appeal to a large enough percentage of the population to get the Labour Party elected on 8 June. That its housing policies remain so bound to a programme of privatisation and home ownership shows just how little it has changed from the party of Tony Blair, whose devotees in our town halls, councils and housing committees remain the real representatives of Labour in power. We’d like to say that this is a missed opportunity; but in the 20 months since he was elected leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn has never once given the slightest indication that his housing policy differs in any way from that of the Labour councils to which he has given his backing. On the contrary, both he and his Shadow Housing Ministers have gone out of their way to say that Labour councils are the Labour Party in power. This Manifesto is the final proof of that betrayal.
Architects for Social Housing