Wednesday 2 November 2011

Homes for Citizens: the politics of a fair housing policy

The Fabian Society returned to the housing debate last week with an excellent debate at the launch of our collection of essays, Homes for Citizens; the politics of a fair housing policy.
Hillary Benn had his first outing as Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – and judging by what we saw, Benn is looking like good news for progressive housing policy.

This is not the time for simple opposition to current housing reforms; but for imaginative and fairer solutions to real problems, across all tenures. These range from the scarcity of social housing, to the problems of an increasing unaffordable and often poor quality private rental sector, and to the thwarted aspirations of those who want but cannot afford to buy their own home.

These problems all require clear policy thinking – and we saw much of this at the seminar in the contributions of Brian Johnson of Moat housing association, and Duncan Shrubsole of Crisis. A flexible approach to tenure, allowing far more fluid movement between ownership and renting, is crucial if we are to meet people’s aspirations whilst providing real security and making the best use of stretched resources. That may mean, for example, that a social housing tenant’s rent increase as their financial position improves. But if we are serious about individual security and stable communities with a mix of tenures and incomes, we can never endorse a policy that forces these households to up sticks and leave their homes. Flexible rent should never threaten anyone’s sense of security in their own home.

There is also a desperate need for clearer policy thinking about the needs and rights of those in the private rental sector. Whilst there are many good landlords, there is very little obligation placed on those who – either through intent or simple lack of experience – do not offer a quality service. Disrepair and poor quality housing is all too common. Security, too, is a real issue. A six month tenancy offers no one a sense of stability in their own home.
But in addition to all this, policy must be embedded in a clear and principled political vision. The changes we need to make in British housing provision are wide reaching and challenging. Labour’s housing policy will not begin to be heard if it does not build on the common stresses and strains experienced by so many households, regardless of their tenure. Polling frequently shows that one in four adults, across all tenures, experience high levels of anxiety because of the seemingly ever increasing costs of all types of housing.

With so many households in this position, it is surely the right time to make housing a central pillar of Labour Party politics. And the aim should be not to speak to different group as if their problems were unique to the tenure they find themselves in, but to stress instead the interconnection of these problems. Better private and social rental sectors is not at the ‘expense’ of homeownership but a benefit to all, taking much of the heat out of the market for those that really do want to own their own home. There is no ‘zero-sum’ trade-off here – and no inherent conflict of electoral interests.

What we have instead is the potential for a wide coalition of interests – and potentially a deep consensus behind a far fairer approach to housing reform than is currently on offer. This, we hope, is the kind of message that Benn will take to heart, and it is a process of principled and practical change that we hope to have contributed to with Homes for Citizens.

James Gregory is a Senior-Research Fellow at the Fabian Society.

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