Back to the future

Originally posted on September 15 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The first Communities and Local Government questions with a new opposition brought some familiar faces – and issues – back into the limelight.

The Labour reshuffle following the election of Jeremy Corbyn gave the shadow DCLG team only a couple of hours to prepare so it was just as well that shadow communities secretary Jon Trickett had an experienced man beside him on the front bench.

John Healey was one of the most effective Labour housing ministers and continued to show a strong interest even after he moved on. His warning about the threat to social housing helped inspire the creation of SHOUT. He explained his continuing interest in an Inside Housing interview last year in which he supported lifting the borrowing cap on council housing.

In June he wrote to the National Audit Office to call for an investigation of the Right to Buy. It’s good news that he’s back and even better that he’s a member of the shadow cabinet.

His line of attack at Monday’s DCLG questions was declining home ownership. With George Osborne describing it as ‘a tragedy’, what did communities secretary Greg Clark have to say to millions of ‘middle England, middle-income young people and families’ with no hope of buying?

Clark hit back with a quote from an old Healey speech from 2009: ‘Home ownership has been dropping since 2005 and I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.’ The number of first-time buyers had doubled since 2010 and the government was going further with the Right to Buy, Help to Buy and starter homes.

The policies were simply not working, said Healey. People need affordable homes to rent and buy but research by Shelter showed families on the new national living wage would only be able to buy in eight out of 326 local authority areas in England. (This was specifically on starter homes, and families on average earnings won’t be able to afford them in more than half of areas either). Healey concluded:

‘Let me give a warning to the Secretary of State and his ministers. They spent the last Parliament blaming Labour. That will not wash now. You have a track record of your own, and we opposition members will—week in, week out—expose your failings and hold this government to account.’

That has to be good news after four months of a leaderless opposition that has been pretty invisible on housing. But Clark batted it away by referring back to Labour’s ridiculous 2005 manifesto promise to ‘create a million more home owners’:

‘That was the commitment given when he was the housing minister. During that parliament, home ownership fell by a quarter of a million—it actually fell. Under this government, the number of first-time buyers has doubled, and under Help to Buy the figures published at the end of last week show that 120,000 people have been helped.’

There in two brief exchanges was one of the main political themes that will be played out on housing. You’d never guess it from Clark’s answer but owner-occupation continued to fall under the coalition despite the billions poured into what really amounts to Help to Sell.

That means conditions for private renters were bound to have a much bigger political profile in this parliament. The election of Jeremy Corbyn and his support for rent control will raise it even more. And we got a preview of the debate on that with a question from another blast from the past, former coalition housing minister Mark Prisk:

‘The new leader of the opposition is, I believe, a keen advocate of rent control—unlike some of his colleagues. Does the secretary of state agree that every time we see rent controls introduced, all that happens is a fall in the supply of housing, making it harder for people to find their homes?’

Housing minister Brandon Lewis surely did agree:

‘The reality is that the introduction of rent controls that the Labour party wants is another level of regulation. Evidence around the world shows that that drives prices up and supply down, which is bad for tenants. It is probably why the private rental sector dropped to just 9% of the market on the Labour Government’s watch. I am proud that we have rebuilt it to 19%, and it is important to see that grow further. What matters is the work we are doing to ensure that the quality of protection is there for tenants. It has been proven that rent controls do not work.’

What he didn’t say was that private renting has risen to 19% while owner-occupation and social renting have both fallen. The way that 40% of former right to buy flats have ended up owned by private landlords is part of that process.

Ironically, given that DCLG questions is an England-only affair, the only question explicitly about social housing came from an SNP MP praising the Scottish government’s abolition of the Right to Buy. That gave Clark the chance to hail the extension of the right to buy in England.

When Labour MPs tackled affordable housing and the ease with which developers are evading planning obligations, Tory backbenchers called for more affordable homes to own. That was a preview of the likely debate if the government goes ahead with plans to ‘refocus’ the affordable housing budget on ownership in the spending review.

The political debate on housing just got sharper – and it needs to be.


2 Comments on “Back to the future”

  1. Toffer says:

    Please read my analysis if you have the time

  2. Toffer says:

    I agree with you that it’s good that we finally am have an opposition challenging the government on their housing record

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