On Tuesday 12 January, a Labour amendment to the Housing Bill, which would have ensured that all rented accommodation was suitable for living in, was defeated in the House of Commons by 312 votes to 219.
Local Government Minister, Marcus Jones, said the amendment would cause “unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords”. Tories don’t think landlords should be obliged to repair mouldy, damaged, unsafe or otherwise unsuitable housing.
This was just the latest example of Tory promotion of cut-throat landlordism. But 39% of Conservative MPs are landlords themselves! That includes David Cameron, who has made half a million in the last five years from renting. A total of 196 MPs rent out one property or more.
Councillors are often in on the act too. It is not unknown for property developers to offer fancy lunches and expenses in exchange for Town Hall co-operation. Other amendments to the Bill include setting a limit of five years occupancy for new council tenants, and allowing property developers to process building schemes through a private company rather than the local council. All in keeping with other provisions in the Bill: for example, a couple earning £30,000 together (i.e. both on just above minimum wage) will have their council rents increased to market rates, and councils will be forced to sell “high value” council properties.
Many amendments to the Bill were voted on in the House of Commons on 5 January at 2 am, when most MPs were in bed. And, as Shadow housing minister John Healey pointed out, an extra 50 pages of amendments were added at the last minute, making an already complicated bill more so.
Architects for Social Housing estimate over 50,000 families, upwards of 150,000 people, have been forcibly evicted from inner-London boroughs in the last three years. Some have moved to outer boroughs, but most out of the city altogether. Social tenants face a worrying time. (Whilst London is bloated with luxury apartments for the super-rich, over 50% of UK social housing is in London). In addition to the Housing Bill, the recent Adonis Report has suggested 3,500 housing estates in London — housing over a million people — be reclassified as brownfield sites, to facilitate their “redevelopment”.
Huge cuts in local government finances also mean many cash-strapped councils are willing to take do land deals with property developers where a council-owned housing estate is knocked down, with a promise that whilst expensive flats will be built, there will be “some” affordable accommodation built for renting or for first time buyers. But the percentage of “affordable” and “rented” is haggled down by the developer. In any case, “affordable” accommodation at 80% of market rates is still unaffordable for most who want to rent, and those looking to buy cannot afford the deposit. In addition affordable accommodation is often built outside of new developments so that new apartment owners don’t bump into any of the proles who used to live there.
For example, Grosvenor’s new housing development, Neo Bankside, will consist of over 200 apartments being sold from £1.25 million to £20 million each. The developers paid Southwark Council £11 million, but only agreed to build the required quota of affordable housing off the developed site. The only place Southwark Council could afford to develop social housing was on other council-owned land, and so it demolished a children’s home and a day nursery to build the affordable housing. Other estates under imminent threat include the Lower Falinge estate in Rochdale, and Broadwater Farm in Tottenham.
Cameron has now promised a paltry £140 million scheme to build new affordable houses for first time buyers, with affordable defined as £450,000 – well out of the reach for most would-be first-time buyers, let alone current renters. In 2014, a person looking to buy a house, earning the national average wage of £26,500 a year, would find 91% of properties in England and Wales beyond their means. Someone on the minimum wage of £14,000 a year would find 99% of properties in England and Wales beyond their means.
We don’t need more so-called “affordable” properties. We need more council housing! We need a nationalised banking system, which controls interest rates on mortgages unrelated to stock market speculation. We should use the wealth of the banks, and increased taxation of the rich, to fund a mass building program of council houses with fair rents and secure tenancies. Homelessness should not be a lottery for the diminishing council stock, but the target of intense government redress. Private landlords who refuse to make their houses suitable for living, including prompt repairs when needed, should be banned from letting. All private landlords should subject to rent caps. Councils should be granted powers to seize empty properties which are being used as investment. These are policies we need to fight for, in our union branches and Labour Parties, on housing demonstrations, and in community campaigns. The future of social housing is at stake.