Tuesday’s landmark report from the housing commission convened by Shelter should be a wake-up call for Conservative ministers and a call to arms for everyone who wants to see more low-cost homes built.
Drawing on the wide experience of backbench politicians of all parties, housing experts, faith leaders and tenants, the commission’s report shows in detail how government failure to build genuinely low-cost homes is at the heart of our housing crisis. It also shows how ministers could turn things around and start to make a real difference for households on low and ordinary incomes – if it chose to.
The report is a welcome challenge to all politicians, but it’s a particular challenge for this Conservative government. After almost nine years in office it’s clear that current Conservative housing policy is not just failing to fix the housing crisis – it’s made it worse.
Even Ministers themselves must now realise that the Conservatives’ decisions to slash Labour’s affordable housing programme to the bone and deregulate planning, and then stop all funding for any new low-cost homes for social rent, has been catastrophic. The number of new homes for social rent built slumped to the lowest level since the Second World War – with just 6,463 new homes built last year - just as the need for this type of housing is spiralling upwards.
Since the 2017 General Election, the Conservatives have realised they need to talk about housing more. But ministers still talk big about housebuilding targets to be reached sometime in the next decade and met largely by commercial housebuilders, rather than realising what new homes we build, and who they’re for, matter just as much as how many we build.
The truth is that to make housing more affordable, we need to build more affordable homes. That argument was at the heart of our Labour plans for social housing, set out in our Green Paper last year. We’ve set out plans to build on a scale at least as ambitious as today’s report, with social housebuilding ramping up to one million genuinely affordable homes over the first 10 years alone, including the biggest council housebuilding programme for over 30 years.
As the Shelter commission’s report sets out, because even the word ‘affordable’ has been corrupted, we also need to redefine what we mean by affordable housing – doing away with the Conservatives’ bogus “affordable rent” at up to 80% of market rates and replacing it with genuinely affordable homes linked to incomes.
It’s vital too, that the case for more social housing includes a commitment to creating mixed communities, with homes built both for the very poorest and most vulnerable, and for those in work on ordinary incomes too. This was the vision of Labour’s first Housing Minister after the War, Nye Bevan, who made the case for “the living tapestry of a mixed community” where “the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all live in the same street”.
In the past, the scale of ambition in both Labour’s plans and Shelter’s report was seen as common sense, by Conservative as well as Labour politicians. I hope today’s report reinforces the growing consensus that the country needs a big programme of social housebuilding again.
John Healey is the shadow housing secretary