The Tory government's Housing and Planning Bill, currently making its way through parliament, is a disaster for tenants. Housing activist Eileen Short looks at the potential consequences of the bill, and at the growing movement against it by tenants, trade unionists and campaigners.
Last month 10,000 people demonstrated in central London against the Housing and Planning Bill. A national movement is growing against the government’s plans. Some of the biggest meetings for a generation have been packed with angry people worried about the future of their homes, families and communities. A broad alliance of tenants (council, housing association and private), trade unionists and housing activists is uniting behind a banner that says, “Kill the Housing Bill; Secure homes for all; Control rents”.
In the midst of a severe housing crisis, the bill will make things worse (see box below). It’s a charter for corporate landlords, developers, banks and investors. It ramps up the past 35 years of sell-offs, privatisations and demolitions of council housing – a major cause of the big jump in numbers forced into insecure and extortionate private renting.
Across Britain we are paying more for housing as a proportion of our incomes than at any time since records began. In the past year evictions hit 42,000 — not including the “no-fault” and “revenge” evictions forcing private renters out of their homes. The numbers of homeless people sleeping on the street increased by a third in the past 12 months. And the Bedroom Tax and benefit cuts mean thousands are being forced out of their homes and communities, a social cleansing that the Housing Bill would speed up.
The erosion of council and non-market housing alternatives has forced 9 million households into private renting, doubled since 2000. Landlords are making record amounts, with the private rented sector now valued at £1.9 trillion. Private developers and landlords see publicly-owned land, inner city estates and green spaces as the next frontier for luxury redevelopment and profit. The two main obstacles are existing tenants with hard-won rights and a determination to keep them, and democratic checks of elected councillors accountable for planning decisions. The bill intends to remove these obstacles in order to hand developers public land at little cost and with huge public subsidy in cash and kind. So publicly-owned, decent, affordable, secure and accountable council housing is both a road-block the government is determined to dismantle and offers plum pickings to property speculators and global corporate investors.
Since 1980 publicly-owned, not-for-profit housing has been badly undermined by both Tory and Labour governments. At the end of the 1970s one in three people in Britain lived in a council house: this was a real alternative. Though often underfunded and badly managed, non-market housing was a reality, and remained one of the “five pillars” of post-war social reconstruction.
But the onslaught of privatisation, deregulation of lenders and private landlords and sell-offs of public assets has resulted in a net loss of more than 2 million council and housing association homes. Investment in publicly-owned house building is now replaced by subsidies for private and corporate landlords. This bonanza for landlords, developers and speculators is the real driver behind the Housing and Planning Bill. It is intended to roll back housing rights and provision and let the unfettered market rip.
The national campaign to kill the Housing Bill has grown fast in the past three months, entirely driven by grass roots resistance. Media coverage, housing pressures and word of mouth mean wherever campaign meetings are organised there’s a good turnout. In Islington, north London, a meeting of 15 tenant reps, working alongside an existing anti-austerity group helped build a public meeting of 150 people against the bill and pressured councillors to call a public meeting a month later attended by 600 local people. In between, small estate meetings, door knocking, street stalls and postering bus stops helped raise awareness.
Generally it is left of Labour socialists who have initiated campaigns. Tenants’ federations are thin on the ground, weakened by lack of funding and incorporation. And the Labour Party has so far taken no initiatives to oppose the bill, with councillors and MPs handwringing, but nothing more. But that is changing as local Kill the Housing Bill campaigns develop. In Southwark, south London, a conference organised by the tenants’ federation acted as a wake-up call.
The Tenant Council has now adopted a strong motion against the bill, demanding that the local council commit to resist it by supporting the campaign and linking with other councils in joint non-cooperation. This would include refusal to collect data on tenant incomes, not introducing higher rents as part of means-tested “pay to stay” requirements, not selling off “high value” homes or paying the levy to private housing associations imposed by government and pledging to issue secure tenancies to all new tenants. This motion, which also calls on trade unions to commit to non-implementation, is being taken up by campaign groups in other areas.
The campaign against the Housing Bill is building into a movement that can win, whatever happens in parliament. Campaigners are fighting on several fronts. On 15 April a “sleep out” protest outside town halls and housing offices will highlight the threat of increased homelessness. It’s an opportunity to spread the campaign with local action in new areas, and it involves new groups including local churches and homeless campaigners. There will be a serious effort to build a housing bloc on the 16 April national People’s Assembly march. And campaigners will be back in parliament in late April to pressure MPs.
Pressure is building for action by trade unions, by MPs and councillors. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is publicly backing the campaign, and John McDonnell MP has pledged Labour to repeal the bill if it becomes law.
The victories in defeating cuts to tax credits and Personal Independence Payments, and the gathering storm of resistance to enforced academisation of schools, alongside the junior doctors’ resistance to attacks on their contracts, are raising confidence. In the housing struggle too, if we organise we can defeat this bill and this government’s onslaught on every aspect of our lives.
Housing and Planning Bill: key measures
- Selling off “high value” council homes as they become empty. Almost all council homes in London and other high rent areas would be lost. One inner-London council predicts that publicly-owned housing worth £250 million would be hoovered up by property speculators in the first year, meaning a 50 percent reduction in homes available to people on the waiting list.
- “Starter Homes”. Instead of providing any council or housing association homes for rent on new sites, developers would build private housing targeted at “first time buyers”. Starter Homes will receive a 20 percent public subsidy, but still only be affordable to those with above average incomes.
- Ending secure lifetime tenancies for new council tenants. Tenants who transfer to another council home could lose their secure tenancy. Fixed-term tenancies would be reviewed annually. Families fear the loss of their homes once children reach 18 and they are no longer deemed eligible for council housing. This hard-won right of council tenants underpins stable communities and the solidarity of estates.
- Removing the right of family members to take over a tenancy when a parent dies or gives up their home. This particularly hits carers and attacks the principle of renting a council home as a “tenancy of choice” and a lifelong alternative to buying.
- Massive market-linked rent rises if one or two household members have a combined income over £30,000 (£40,000 in London). This is before tax and includes pensions, disability benefits and student loans as income. It will hit up to 600,000 people renting from councils and housing associations. The rent for a three-bed council flat in parts of London could go from £650 to £2,000 a month.
- Reducing Gypsy and Traveller sites. Councils will no longer have to provide new sites and the specific housing needs of Gypsies and Travellers will no longer be recognised.
- Putting public land, including council estates, on a “brownfield” list so they can be redeveloped with little or no democratic planning control. Existing estates could be listed for redevelopment against the wishes of tenants, with automatic planning approval and no legal right of challenge.
- The bill will do nothing to improve private renting, the fastest growing housing sector in Britain.> Private renting has the worst conditions (one in four homes have major damp or repair problems), the least security (maximum six-month tenancies for many and no protection against “no fault” eviction after two months) and the highest rents with no controls (many renters spend over half their income on rent). The bill makes some minor changes, but does nothing about these key problems.
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