Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Homes alone

Housing is likely to continue to be a flashpoint for Labour’s traditional communities

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In recent years, the debate around housing has increasingly moved up the political agenda. Some have argued that successive governments, including the Labour administration, have been slow to recognise the importance of public investment in housing as a central tool for tackling inequality, disadvantage and the resentments that can brew when the poorest compete for a limited supply of social housing, often in ethnically diverse areas.

Rising house prices, combined with the decline in the stock of social housing (precipitated by policies such as ‘right to buy’ in the 1980s), have placed great strain on local authorities with large numbers of people unable to afford to purchase their own homes or on housing waiting lists. Rising house prices have for the first time left large numbers of middle-class families and first-time buyers on good incomes priced out of the housing market. The ratio of house prices to earnings for first-time buyers in Britain is approximately 8.25 (measured by the ratio of bottom quartile house prices to bottom quartile earnings). Asset inequality in Britain has been on the increase and home ownership is critical to this, contributing to the largest wealth gap in 40 years according a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report.

This increasingly shared experience of not being able to buy your own property or to access social housing has the capacity to unite campaigners to get results, as was demonstrated by the way housing became one of the key issues debated during the Labour deputy leadership contest. In particular the experiences, highlighted by candidates such as Jon Cruddas, point to the dangers of competition for limited social housing and the capacity of far right groups to exploit this issue. Many in poor white communities feel increasingly resentful, powerless, left behind and locked in poverty. Such frustrations can then be channelled at minority groups – even if they are private homeowners rather than recipients of social housing. More generally, there is increasing evidence of social segregation in London and the south-east, with middle-class families leaving due to the lack of affordable family-sized homes. If this trend continues, London increasingly risks becoming a city occupied by the very rich and the very poor.

In areas such as Tower Hamlets, housing overcrowding continues to blight people’s life chances. According to the 2001 Census, it is the second most overcrowded borough in the country. It has one of the UK’s highest levels of child poverty, with housing costs and unemployment being key drivers. The shortage of good quality, family homes is affecting life chances, contributing to health inequalities and affecting childrens’ education. There are stories of children having to take turns to do their homework and sharing one bedroom with three or four people in small, overcrowded flats.

This is why the prime minister’s commitment to create a ‘property-owning democracy’, backed by an announcement in the green paper to build three million more homes by 2020, is a radical and important step towards ensuring we are not held back as a nation by the lack of social and affording housing. In one of the world’s richest nations, it would be a scandal to see talent wasted because children do not have decent homes to live in. We must use this great opportunity to not only ensure that the housing shortage is addressed, but also that house building is focused around creating socially and ethnically integrated communities where people can create strong social ties and family networks.

The need to go beyond the so-called ‘bricks and mortar’ approach presents a major challenge for the government, local authorities and housing associations. There has been much talk of doing this in the past, but with few seriously good examples. New developments must ensure there are good youth facilities and play spaces for young people which go beyond the usual sops to appease local people from property developers. Other provisions such as health centres, job readiness and job brokerage programmes in close proximity are crucial if we are to avoid creating yet more sink estates.

Housing is likely to continue to be a key flashpoint for Labour’s traditional communities, and ought to be at the heart of a Labour manifesto which seeks to improve the life chances of the poorest in our society. Ignoring the mounting need for higher quality, affordable and socially cohesive housing will risk alienating the very supporters Labour needs to win the next election.

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Rushanara Ali MP

is member of parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow

3 comments

  • A few hard realities. I live in a house worth more than £300,000. The two either side are HMOs.
    Some of my neighbours have houses of a similar value that are unfit for human habitation, could be made lovely houses for less than £10,000, have incomes less than pension credit level and can’t conceive of borrowing that much money and leaving their heirs to pay it off.
    Barking and Dagenham is the least difficult place in London to become a Council Tenant. There really are people there who think everyone new in their street is a Council tenant and everyone new and black is new to the UK.However, I think the big problem there is people who fear dropping out of the working class into casual work or long-term unemployment.
    Private renting has been growing fast in small terraces and in Council estates. People are bewildered by this and its consequences in flytipping and anti-social behaviour. They expect their Council to tackle it. How?
    Waiting lists? No one mentioned them in my 12 years as a Councillor. One woman came to see me about her temporary accommodation. It was coming to an end and she feared returning to Bed & Breakfast. Several others already had; I got that stopped and she got another temporary accomodationin a leased house. I’m not sure she thought that was as big a success as I did.
    Finally, what about the people in bad conditions who have never done anything about it? Housed in a one-bed whilst pregnant, child is now in 20s and never worked, never applied for a transfer……

  • Well, let’s build more houses (social included) in the UK. We need more homes. The UK is only about 10% urban anyway! As long as it includes more cinemas, I’ll be happy!

  • Is it stating the bleedin’ obvious to say a) a housing policy should be about people, not properties b) what is missing is good quality rented accommodation. Never mind what teachers and nurses can’t afford – what about teaching assistants and cleaners? c) If you provide good quality affordable rented homes you can i) reduce the number of people over-extending themselves to buy what they can’t afford ii) improve energy consumption by ensuring that what you let has been appropriately refurbished iii) undercut the new slum-landlords who now own much of the former Right To But stock. I know, it’s dangerously subversive and might undermine the home-owning democracy, but, hey, this is the party of Labour isn’t it?

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