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AT A recent meeting, I was asked to “briefly sum up” current housing policy. I was still talking half an hour later.
In three decades in the field, I’ve never known such a period of uncertainty.
That’s very worrying, given the unprecedented damage neoliberal housing policies are causing. But even Grenfell hasn’t been enough to compel politicians to change direction.
The misery of homelessness, substandard conditions and excessive rents continues for millions. New social housing — however loosely defined — is nowhere near meeting demand, while private developers hoard land and profits.
The time has come to build a national, united housing movement the politicians can’t ignore.
That’s the main purpose of the National Housing Summit on December 8. Under the heading: “Safe, Secure Homes for All,” council and housing association tenants, private renters, safety groups and trade unionists will come together to discuss how we build a campaign for real change.
There will be workshops about the key issues, including resisting estate demolitions, scrapping universal credit, winning investment for a new generation of council housing and demanding more rights for private tenants.
But there are many challenges to face. Housing is still an issue that struggles for sustained political attention.
Beyond the occasional reflex, it’s not taken seriously in the corridors of power. This is perfectly illustrated by the fact that we’re currently on our fourth housing minister in three years and very few people could name him (at the time of writing, it’s Kit Malthouse). In part, Brexit chaos is infecting housing policy, but the problem goes deeper.
As the Star has reported, there was a potentially very significant moment on October 3 when Theresa May announced the government would be lifting the “borrowing cap” that has hamstrung councils from the building the homes we need.
That’s still not a done deal. The necessary bureaucratic measures won’t be in place until April and, as with every aspect of current politics, nothing can be taken for granted.
But assuming it happens, it’s reward for the tireless campaigners who continued to fight for real council housing, long after others gave up on it.
Some 10,000 new, genuinely affordable rented homes a year could result. It’s nowhere near enough, but it’s a start and an important recognition of the fact that, since the war, we’ve never built enough homes unless councils were a major provider.
However, any brief period of celebration is tempered by the way politicians continue to sow confusion. The Tories don’t really want council housing as we’ve known it, just like they don’t really want the NHS.
They’re still fixated on housing associations (HAs) as private organisations that can be relied on to do the government’s bidding and play to the tune of the private developers they increasingly resemble.
But infuriatingly, pandering to the broken private market model isn’t restricted to the Tories. Labour is still muddying the waters.
Quite rightly, it is rejecting discredited “affordable housing” definitions, but is replacing one source of confusion with another.
Labour’s housing green paper fails to provide clear commitments on real council housing or reforming HAs.
This flawed policy is being put into practice in London. Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged to build 10,000 new council homes. That would be great, if they weren’t being planned at rents that are, on average, £50 a week more expensive than existing local authority housing.
Meanwhile, he continues to sign sweetheart deals with HAs as a reward for failure, including their pernicious role in promoting social cleansing in the name of regeneration.
Like some other Labour politicians, Khan doesn’t seem to understand that the private market isn’t the solution to the housing crisis, it’s the cause.
At a political level, housing policy is in flux. At a human level, it’s blighting lives. It’s a massive problem that isn’t going away, whether we’re in or out of the EU.
But it’s a major underlying factor in Brexit and the political disillusionment and anger that led to it. The far right and fascists never fail to exploit the housing shortage for their divisive purposes, by falsely blaming it on immigration.
Labour must convince people it has the policies to solve the housing emergency and its damaging and dangerous consequences.
That requires decisive, ambitious, long-term action, not short-term fixes and fudge.
But we can’t just wait for the next election and leave it to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Along with jobs, the NHS, education and pensions, housing should be at the core of an active movement that’s appealing to the working class beyond the narrow confines of a bosses’ Brexit or a bosses’ Remain.
That’s what the national Safe, Secure Homes for All summit is about. No more Grenfells. We are not prepared to see more lives crushed by a capitalist housing system incapable of providing a society in which everyone has a place they can call home.
The National Housing Summit: Safe, Secure Homes for All will be on Saturday December 8 at Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9BD from 11am to 5pm. For more information, to book a place and/or organise a delegation email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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