On housing, the Tories are hamstrung by ideology, and Labour’s alternative has to combine local solutions with national investment, John Healey tells Conor Pope and Henna Shah
‘As with everything in housing, there’s not, I’m afraid, one single or simple solution.’ These are not the words you want to hear when time is running short, and the interviewee’s next appointment is a full meeting of the shadow cabinet for the first time after the summer recess.
But John Healey, Labour’s shadow housing secretary, is not someone who will resort to slogans in his brief. He was a junior minister responsible for housing under Gordon Brown – one of only five members of parliament in the current shadow cabinet to have served in the last Labour government – and knows the issue and its complexities back to front.
‘Solving the country’s housing crisis is complex, costly, long-term’, he tells us. This is not a particularly thrilling thing to hear, but a grateful admission from a senior politician. The United Kingdom faces lots of challenges that are complex and have solutions which will be costly and long-term – something too few in public life today are willing to admit.
Housing is certainly one of those issues. For some, the answer is simple: build more. Yet that does not answer the questions of where houses are built, by whom, and who pays for them.
The significance of housing as an issue is not lost on the Labour party. The surprise general election result last year can, in part, be put down to the large number of voters who, having reached their late-20s and 30s, found themselves no nearer to getting on the property ladder, and for whom renting was increasingly dear. As Healey explained, ‘Even Theresa May had to admit housing was big part of why her party did so badly.’
‘A couple of stark facts follow the 2017 election’, he expands. ‘There are now a million fewer under-45s who own their own home than there were in 2010. People on average have seen private rents rise by around £1,800 over that eight years, well ahead of incomes. And for many younger people, particularly working people on ordinary incomes, the idea of council or public housing is never on their radar.’
For Healey, this is a problem the Conservative party is increasingly aware of, and yet will do nothing about.
‘When I say to Tory MPs, with the ministers in front of them, “Your problem is that your ministers have no answer to the housing crisis.” They sort of avoid your eye, they shuffle uncomfortably in their seats. They know it’s true’, he says.
The problem goes all the way to the top. Earlier in the day, at prime minister’s questions, Labour MP Helen Hayes asked a question about whether No 10 backed housing minister James Brokenshire’s proposals for three year tenancies, but was simply told that the query would be passed on to the relevant minister. ‘That’s so typical of Theresa May’, Healey sighs. ‘Just ducking the really difficult decisions. It’s fine to stand on the steps of Downing Street, declaring a concern [for] the just about managing. But when you’re in government you have the power and you have the position to do something directly about this …’ He trails off to a shrug.
So what is stopping the government addressing housing, given they know how much it is harming them electorally? ‘It’s as much a question of ideology as it is of policy, which is why for us, as the Labour party, and as those on the centre-left, we should take great heart from the fact that our differences with the Tory government, on housing as on many things, are not just differences of policy, they’re differences of ideology. And it’s the very basic political beliefs and dogma of the Conservative party that prevents them from coming up with the answers that people need.’
A loyal minister under Brown and shadow cabinet member under Jeremy Corbyn, Healey is one of those both serving the current leader and reviving bold policy positions that are as likely to be espoused by Progress members as they are Momentum members: ‘For us as Labour party members, and campaigners who want to see a Labour government above anything else, should take heart from this. If the self-evident answers to Britain’s housing crisis lie, as I believe they do, in a bigger role for councils; in stronger regulation of private markets; in greater contribution of government capital to build low cost housing; higher legal standards in everything from safety to energy efficiency; tougher conditions on public contracts or public funding – then it’s quite evident that it’s only the centre-left that has the will, the belief, and will make the commitment to doing what’s necessary to solve the housing crisis.’
The point to be made, he says, is that ‘it’s the combination of radical and credible that will win people to Labour.’ To paraphrase the current prime minister: remind you of anyone?
Unlike the Tories, Labour recognised the importance of housing ahead of the election: ‘We produced a housing manifesto in addition to the main manifesto. It was the only policy area where we did it.’
The manifesto aimed to prove two things. ‘Number one, that we can act and legislate to make private renting a more affordable and more secure type of housing – our first priority. And number two, giving those people, like most of us, who at some point aspire to own their own home, some hope that could be for them as well.’
But that feels like the point with Healey: he is someone everyone can work with, and who wants to work with anyone in the labour movement to get the job done. He seems comfortable referencing any Labour tradition. By the door of his parliamentary office there is a coathook on which hang nothing but Labour-red ties. Next to that, a building site helmet, with the words ‘A Future Fair For All’ – Labour’s 2010 general election slogan – emblazoned across the front. Many of the housing policies now are unapologetically from the era of Ed Miliband’s leadership and at home in last year’s manifesto and many before it: ‘We will establish three year tenancy as the norm, and we will control rent rises as part of a package of stronger consumer rights for private renters.’
A newer, and possibly bolder plan, he argues harks back to Clement Attlee. ‘The big cost inflator in housing at the moment is land. If you can reduce the artificial cost of land, then you can reduce the cost of build, and therefore the cost to rent and the cost to buy. And so, we propose an ‘English sovereign land trust’, first of all, to marshal and make the best use of surplus public land, and secondly to be able to buy other land alongside councils at prices that are close to current use value, and then make those available … None of this is rocket science.
‘We’ve done this before, it worked very well with the new towns. That was the way that we built, funded and developed the new towns after the second world war.’ So are new towns the answer? ‘They have a role’, he replies. ‘They’re not the answer, because’, he smiles – we already know what comes next – ‘because the answer is too big and too wide spread.’ Here is not someone to give you a quick and easy answer if it will not solve the problem. That is to be admired.
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