Karen Buck on the Housing and Planning Bill
Surely, before the Housing and Planning Bill, now before Parliament, was drafted, Government Ministers sat down with officials and drew up a list of the challenges facing housing policy? The crisis of affordability would have featured on that list, with particular reference to London, where home ownership is plummeting, especially amongst the under-35s, and where rents routinely take up half or more of income. Attention ought to have been paid to the importance of work incentives and rewarding work, in housing, as was meant to be the case with changes to the tax and benefits system. The strain on Housing Benefit must have been considered. Rising levels of private renting and incomes still below 2008 levels all add pressure onto the HB Bill, bringing that down has been a key objective of ‘welfare reform’. Rising homelessness, manifested on the streets and in Bed and Breakfast hotels, may not have been a top priority, but it would have made an appearance. Some nodding recognition of the importance of stable, mixed communities may have been made.
So, armed with this list, the Housing and Planning Bill was drawn up. Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about the Bill is that whilst it may be the worst piece of housing legislation in modern history it achieves a neat symmetry. It manages to achieve almost the exact opposite of what it is intended to do. Extending the Right to Buy to the Housing Association sector, funded via enforced sales of high value council housing, creates no new homes, but will further reduce the housing stock for those unable to buy. With ex-council flats changing hands for £500k and more in London, those buying will certainly not be in the same category as those on council waiting lists. Worse, in future developers must provide ‘starter homes’ for sale instead of a percentage of new build (admittedly, often an inadequate percentage) for rent. Capped at £250,000 outside London and £450,000 in London, these join other so called ‘affordable’ schemes which can’t be managed on an MP’s salary, let alone an average one.
Far from helping middle and lower earners, it ensures they are priced out still further. Back in the social sector, fixed tenancies are ended in favour of fixed term ones, ending security for families, and a ‘pay to stay’ policy is intended to transform social rents to market ones for households with annual incomes over £30,000 (over £40,000 in London), discouraging tenants from seeking a pay rise and eventually ensuring that social housing is only a sector for the very poorest. At a stroke (or series of strokes), affordability and work incentives are demolished, communities undermined, security removed, and another boost given to the private rented sector (which will, in turn, add to the cost of Housing Benefit). Higher levels of homelessness are guaranteed, and the housing interests of the seriously well-off prioritised over those on middle and lower incomes. The election of a Labour Mayor in London would not mean the end of this most ill-thought out and pernicious piece of legislation.
What it gives Londoners is a chance to try a different strategy. London Labour recognises the importance of boosting supply of all tenures; securing a fair share of new development for affordable homes to rent and buy, ensuring Londoners get first call on a new generation of shared-ownership homes and pays attention to the needs of private renters. These are all vitally important in themselves. Yet a victory for Sadiq Khan will also make a wider point. It will confirm that housing has at last come to feature as a political and not merely a private story, one which commands the attention of politicians and policy makers. It would send a message that the Housing and Planning Bill is the wrong answer to Britain’s growing housing needs and affordability crisis. That would be a decent start until we can secure a change of government.