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Labour must exploit the Conservatives’ Housing Weakness to the Full

This article was first published on Labour List, 4 April, 2013

Back when I was still a student in India during the 1980’s, I was astonished to learn about ‘Cardboard City’, a makeshift community for the homeless which sprung up in the underpasses of London. For those of us used to seeing people living on the street in a developing country, it was mind-blowing that the British government had allowed a sort of shanty town to develop in one of the richest cities in the world.

Today’s Conservative housing crisis may be less visual, but it is no less real. The Tory brand has come a long way since a minister dismissed the homeless as “what you step over when you come out of the opera”, but their underlying ideology hasn’t changed one bit.

In 2013 the Conservatives know that there is a political advantage to dealing with housing, but their fundamental opposition to investing in and regulating the housing market is leaving too many people priced out of the homes they need.

A recent Labour investigation revealed that there has been a clear drop in the amount of affordable housing being built under the coalition and that Tory and Lib Dem councils are building fewer affordable housing units than Labour counterparts. That choking off of supply matters because house prices and private rents on the open market are increasingly unaffordable for those on modest and even middle incomes. In fact, Shelter have calculated that if what has happened to the price of housing over the last 40 years had been repeated for food, a chicken would cost £51.18.

To make matters worse, the Coalition are intent on pulling away the safety net which helps people cope with the high costs of housing. This Crisis map shows how changes to housing benefit for private renters have driven people from inner London, while the bedroom tax is set to hit 660,000 social tenants of working age.

Labour should be opposing the Tories whenever and wherever they try to make hard-working people pay the price of George Osborne’s failure to provide a plan for jobs and growth, but we also need to show that Labour has the positive ideas – and the local pilots – to really make a difference.

In my home borough of Southwark, there is more council housing stock than in any other London borough (half our residents are either council tenants or council leaseholders), but around 20,000 people are still on waiting lists. The Labour-run council here has forward looking plans to improve the lives of its existing tenants by increasing the quality of current housing stock with a £326 million investment making every home warm, dry and safe. It is also building 1,000 new council homes by 2020. Yet as noted in the report of the Southwark Housing Commission last year, ‘even maintaining the council’s housing stock at the present number of homes, while improving quality, represents a massive challenge’. In essence, the Commission concluded that the council could either gradually shrink its current housing stock, in order to allow investment in new construction, or could borrow in order to finance new construction while maintaining the current stock, an option which it did find could be “financially viable” if managed correctly. As so often, Labour in local government are the pioneers of progressive policy and all of us in Southwark will be promoting our model for consideration by Labour’s leadership as the time for a new manifesto approaches.

In the meantime, exploring whether any of Ken’s 2012 manifesto pledges (a non-profit lettings agency, a ‘Living Rent’, pension-fund backed house building) could be implemented at the borough level is also worth examining. The case for pension fund investment is particularly pertinent, given the current fiscal situation. Another idea could be for National Savings & Investments to sell housing bonds to raise capital for investment.

We should not forget, however, that many of the best solutions to our housing crisis will be Co-operative and community led. Labour and Co-operative MPs Gareth Thomas and Jonathan Reynolds have been leading our work in parliament to both offer real solutions and expose the hollowness of the Conservatives’ apparent conversion to co-operative politics. In my own work as Chair of Southwark Co-operative Party I am considering setting up local brain-storming forums to harness the ideas and talents of local residents and stakeholders in order to find solutions to our housing crisis.

We can be confident that Labour has both the local experience and the national ideas to deliver a genuine One Nation housing plan – but we won’t get the chance if we don’t get out there and fight. Housing has long been the forgotten frontier in British politics, we need to claim it as our own.

Prem Goyal is a City entrepreneur, Vice Chair of Bermondsey and Old Southwark Labour Party and Chair of the Southwark Co-operative Party

Written by Reporter