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Labour Party Conference ’19 Labour needs clear policies, with a serious commitment to council housing at their core

The party needs to be explicit: council housing means council housing, says GLYN ROBBINS

IT’S hard to overstate the importance of the coming general election.  

As well as the survival of our welfare state, the future of housing policy is in the balance.  

What’s left of council housing is at risk, along with any other alternatives to the failing market system.

The threat from a Tory government in lockstep with property developers is the same, whether we’re in or out of the EU.  

Council housing has been a refuge for millions from the super-exploitation of private renting.

After decades of attacks, by governments of all stripes, we’ve never needed it more than now.

The scale of the housing emergency was exposed again by the Children’s Commissioner’s report in August, which found 210,000 children registered as homeless, some of them “growing up in shipping containers.” 

This outrage was also featured in Channel 4’s documentary George Clarke’s Council House Scandal, after which over 220,000 people signed a petition calling for 100,000 new council homes a year, for 30 years.  

Working-class people know why council housing works and the difference it makes.  

The Labour Party needs to share that understanding and articulate it.  

It’s essential to make housing a key election campaign issue and offer real hope of change that cuts across the divisiveness of Brexit.  

That can only be done through clear policies, with a serious commitment to council housing at their core.        

But there are still too many mixed messages on housing from the Labour Party.  

The current national policy position is a recipe for fudge, littered with deliberately vague commitments and misleading terms like “social” and “affordable” housing.  

The party leadership should follow George Clarke’s example and be explicit: council housing means council housing, publicly owned, with genuinely affordable rents, permanent secure tenancies and a comprehensive in-house repairs service.

There’s a credibility gap to be bridged because around the country — Labour councils have been playing to the developers’ tune, pandering to corporate housing associations (HAs) and promoting fake council housing.  

Every town and city has seen an oversupply of private apartment blocks at prices working class people can’t afford.  

HAs, supposedly “social” landlords, are complicit in this abject failure to match housing supply to local housing need.  

Some new council housing is being built, but with rents that are often significantly higher than existing municipal homes and through local housing companies that don’t adequately safeguard against future privatisation.  

It’s true that councils are still starved of government cash. But some are also locked into New Labour era delusions and pro-market ideology, particularly when it comes to large-scale regeneration projects.  

The consequences are ruinous. Working-class neighbourhoods and their vital social networks are being destroyed.  

As ever, the poor and vulnerable suffer most. Young people are being sent a message that they don’t belong in the place they call home.  

There’s a desperation about housing that mainstream politicians are failing to address, leaving a space for racists and the far right to exploit.

If Labour doesn’t improve its housing agenda, there’s also a danger the Tories will steal their clothes.  

Johnson’s populist appeal could include a veneer of support for council housing. Historically, more council homes have been built under Tory governments than Labour and nearly one-third of people on waiting lists are in shire districts.  

But it was the Tories that created the conditions for Grenfell and they should never be allowed to forget that.

Labour needs to develop a wider vision that relates housing to the type of society we want to live in.  

It’s not just about building more homes. They need to be linked to the kind of comprehensive planning, under democratic control, that inspired the post-war “new towns.”  

Creating places based on collective ownership and public services connects with social care, fuel poverty and environmental concerns the market can’t answer.  

All this requires Labour to have the courage to challenge the holy cow of private home ownership and that includes dismantling right to buy.

This bolder approach can set the tone of a general election campaign that comprehensively rejects neoliberalism.  

Jeremy Corbyn quite rightly points to the threat posed to our NHS by Donald Trump and the vulture capitalists he represents.  

They’ll also have their greedy eyes on our housing. There are scores of council estates they’d like to get their talons on.  

US money is already financing corporate landlordism and the dubious activities of housing associations.  

These issues cannot be reduced to Brexit. Trump, environmental destruction and the housing crisis will still be with us, whatever happens with the EU. Only a real socialist alternative can defeat them.

The Homes for All campaign alliance, including Defend Council Housing, is working to co-ordinate and support the many local housing justice struggles around the country.  

More Labour Party and trade union branches are needed to build a national movement the government can’t ignore.  

But there are positive signs. The Labour Campaign for Council Housing is spear-heading a raft of resolutions urging conference to adopt a more positive, less ambiguous platform.  

The Homes for All Charter for Housing Action broadens out the perspective to include measures to improve rights for private tenants, reform housing associations, end social cleansing and demand better fire safety.  

All wards, CLPs and their prospective parliamentary candidates are invited to adopt the charter.

Amid all the political uncertainty, one thing is certain. The next general election will be close. Housing policy could be the difference between winning and losing.  

Homes for All/Defend Council Housing Labour Party conference fringe meeting, Tuesday September 24, 6pm at Community Base, 113 Queens Road, Brighton BN1 3XG. Speakers include Steve Tuner (Unite the Union), Grenfell United, Harriet Grant (Guardian journalist) and Matt Western MP.

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