The Housing Bill – Fit for Habitation?

The Conservative parties’ record on Housing is appalling. Home ownership has fallen every year since 2010. On average, house prices are now almost seven times people’s incomes. The Conservatives have overseen the lowest number of homes built under any government since the 1920’s and the lowest number of genuinely affordable homes for two decades. Private rents have soared. Homelessness is rising – rough estimates fromhomeless link‘ (based on figures submitted annually by local authorities to the Department for Communities and Local Government) confirm this.

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Britain faces a grave housing crisis, but the Conservatives’ ‘Housing Bill‘ does little to resolve it.  It gives ministers powers to impose new house building and override both local community concerns (a total of 32 new housing and planning powers) signalling the end of localism. The bill enables developers to build ‘starter homes’ without the need to consider basic community issues, for example where children can play or whether there are enough doctors’ surgeries in the area. Under the terms of the bill councils will no longer to be able to ensure that developers contribute to local infrastructure (i.e. hospitals, schools & safe cycle-routes).

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The central tenet of the Torys’ Bill is the so called affordable ‘starter home‘. The Prime Minister has promised that 200,000 will be built by 2020. These homes will be built by private builders and will be sold at 80% of market prices (a starter home will cost approximately £250,000 outside London and £450,000 in London). However, economic realities show the way these properties are simply another asset/cash-cow built for sale and speculation to private capital and investors. The ‘starter homes‘ are inadequate to meet the needs of those struggling to buy and are out of reach for most young people and families on ordinary incomes. Calling these properties affordable risks making a mockery of the definition of ‘affordable housing’ – the definition has been distorted under Cameron’s government. The Conservatives are simply re-defining what ‘affordable’ means.

Research from the housing charity Shelter has revealed that  starter homes will not be :

… a good replacement for other forms of affordable housing and will not help the majority of people on average wages struggling to get an affordable, decent home …

…to give ordinary families any real hope of a stable future, the government must prioritise investing in homes that people on low or average incomes can actually afford to rent or buy – Campbell Robb, Chief Executive, Shelter.

Shelter notes that for the majority of people not on high wages or without the advantage of a dual salary, Starter Homes will not help them to get onto the property ladder. There are no local authorities where a single person on the National Living Wage (NLW) will be able to afford a home. Shelters research reveals that families on the NLW would be priced out of being able to afford a Starter Home in all but two percent of areas in England.

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During Prime-Minister Questions (PMQs, 13th January 2016) Jeremy Corbyn grilled Cameron on the absurdity and inherent contradictions of the Tory’s housing policy. Corbyn (pointing to the research by Shelter) asserted  homes would be unaffordable to people on the new National Living Wages living in 98% of council areas.

Rather than building more affordable homes, is the Prime Minister not simply branding more homes affordable, which is not a solution to the housing crisis?

The policies of the Conservative party are exacerbating Britain’s housing crisis. The ‘Right to Buy‘ scheme – a Tory flag-ship policy echoing & aping Thatcher – has been an unmitigated disaster. Right-to-buy is yet another empty, simplistic Tory message masking the destruction of elements of Britain’s welfare state. Though ostensibly it was intended to increase home ownership; however the externalities and impact of the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme show that owner-occupation has been falling consistently. Cameron’s party presents itself as the party of ‘workers’ and ‘home owners’, but the reality is far from this empty rhetoric & spin. Nearly 40% of all council flats sold under the Right to Buy in England are now being rented out privately. Numbers of people renting has rocketed to 11 million. The number of young private renters has doubled.

The extension of the so-called right to buy to housing associations, funded by the forced sale of council homes, will mean fewer genuinely affordable homes when the need has never been greater …..This right-to-buy policy, however, is bad housing policy. Shelter warned that 113,000 council homes could be sold off to pay for it, with no-go areas for many lower income families to live in in many of our major cities and towns. – John Healey MP 

Rather than increasing ownership ‘Right to Buy’ is simply contributing to surging property prices (home ownership amongst young people  has plummeted) exacerbating the problem of housing. ‘Right to Buy’ can simply be seen as yet another avenue of the transferring of public assets into the hands of private capital and the death knell of affordable social housing. Housing associations are to extend the Right To Buy initiative to 1.3m of their tenants.  The Financial Times has recently revealed that English councils face £1bn a year assets loss from homes sell-off. Labour estimates more than 190,000 council houses could be lost by 2020 by virtue of the Housing Bill. The net stock of social rented homes is in terminal decline. The Conservatives are not the party of ‘home-owners’ but the party of private landlords & property barons.

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The private rented sector has little security for tenants (PRS). Renting can be incredibly unstable, with soaring rents, hidden fees and eviction a constant worry. In the PRS  one in three homes are rated as non-decent. According to the latest English Housing Survey, social housing has a lower proportion of non-decent homes than the owner-occupied sector. Many private tenants feel powerless when facing problems with their landlord. So called ‘Rogue Landlords‘ are exploiting their tenants vulnerability, insecurity and often their inability & lack of means to defend their rights.

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The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) estimates  16% of privately rented housing is unsafe compared with 6% in the social rented market. CAB research has revealed that 740,000 households in England are living in privately rented homes that present a severe threat to their health (including 510,000 families with children). Landlords are receiving £5.6bn a year on rent for homes with category 1 hazards, which includes £1.3bn of housing benefit. Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

Rogue landlords are putting profits before safety. With a growing private rental sector, increasing numbers of people – including more than 500,000 children – are falling prey to landlords who fail to meet decent standards.

A YouGov poll commissioned by housing charity Shelter found 68,000 homes (or 1 in 10 privately-rented homes in London and the South East have been infested with vermin or cockroaches). Further the poll also found one in two renters in the South East had experienced problems with ‘poor conditions or disrepair’.

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Shelter/YouGov Poll – 3,700 private renters

Shockingly (or sadly not so) it has recently revealed that 73 of the MPs , who voted down a recent Labour amendment to the housing bill to ‘ensure rented homes are fit for human habitation’, are residential landlords. According to the register of members’ financial interests as of December 2015, those who voted against the measure listed had also recorded their income as a residential landlord under Section 6(ii) of the current register of members’ interests as -‘Income derived from property: over £10,000 in a calendar year’. Amendment 52 of the Housing Bill sought to establish ‘implied term of fitness for human habitation in residential lettings’.  The Labour-proposed amendment was rejected by 312 votes to 219.

Teresa Pearce, the shadow housing minister who proposed the amendment, said renters lacked consumer protection :

Yet if I rent from a landlord, perhaps the only available property for me, and it was unsafe to live in then I can either put up or shut up. In a market where demand outstrips supply renters lack basic consumer power to bargain for better conditions.

Replying to Pearce,  Local Government minister Marcus Jones said:

… clause 52 would result in unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords which would deter further investment and push up rents for tenants. Of course we believe that all homes should be of a decent standard and all tenants should have a safe place to live regardless of tenure, but local authorities already have strong and effective powers to deal with poor quality and safe accommodation and we expect them to use them. 

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Clearly the way those 73 Conservative MPs voted is completely unrelated to their personal financial interests as landlords and the interests of their party donors. As usual the Conservative party has the interests of ordinary working people at the heart of its decision making in government…..

The Conservative governments attitude to housing is ‘not fit for habitation‘. Their policies are for the benefit of their benefactors & themselves, the private rented sector is ever increasing by virtue of the sale of public housing stock and assets. The Conservatives are doing what they do best, funnelling public money into private hands under the pretences and smokescreen of the ‘Right to Buy’. The new Housing Bill is only going to add fuel to an already raging fire. Things have to change. Urgent reform is needed, but this is not what the legislation proposed by the Torys will bring. The growing bank-balances of speculators and property barons are being fostered on the back of destitution, insecurity & health-risks.

In an ominous & scathingly accurate observation – the tireless social justice campaigner Harry Leslie-Smith tweeted:

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The slums of the 1930s returning as the slums of the 2020s? Affordable, safe & quality housing in Britain is on the brink of collapse. The rights of tenants demolished. The profits of private landlords & property barons are being buoyed by the Tory Housing Bill, claims they are the party of workers are false. Party of w**kers is more accurate.

By Frederick Antonio Gallucci | International Law LLM | @gibblegbble

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