5 Days Remaining

Friday 31st
posted by Morning Star in Features

Lack of clarity about tackling the housing crisis might cost Labour at the ballot box, Bernie Evans reports

Despite some encouraging figures from Labour following the Lyons report, notably a commitment to build 200,000 houses a year by 2020, it’s not clear if the party’s policies go far enough.

Too many questions remain unanswered, even after you exclude Tory ones about how Labour will pay for the programme.

How many will be desperately needed social housing? How many are to be sold and, of them, how many will be “affordable” — and what does affordable even mean?

In the private-rental sector, rent rises are to be capped bringing to mind the image of the horse and the stable door. When rents are already too high, sucking up huge proportions of people’s pay, and when profiteering landlords are behaving like modern-day Rachmans, will Labour’s policies make a significant difference?

Rents in the private sector have “ballooned by more than 8 per cent in the past year.” One of the reasons for landlords raising their rents is because they can, with the government doing nothing to stop them.

Even when outrageous cases of profiteering are discovered, the judicial system does little to discourage repetition. Yaakov Maron, having charged £420 a month for a rented room accessed by a staircase with 2?3? of headroom, and already having been banned by Barnet council from letting out the room, was fined, with costs, around a mere £3,000. What sort of deterrent to profiteering landlordism is this? One in three of privately rented properties is officially classed as “non-decent,” while one in five present a health or safety risk to the occupier. Such appalling data cries out for a more radical policy from Labour.

Landlordism is an industry of which this country should be ashamed. Not only has their share of housing benefit risen by a massive 51 per cent since 2008, many landlords use tax avoidance to further fill their pockets. One tax-evading landlord managed to deprive the Treasury of £84,000 yet received only a one year suspended sentence as punishment.

A think tank recently went on record as describing the government’s buy to let (BTL) scheme as a “Big Tax Let-off,” with “tax breaks” for landlords amounting to £5 billion a year.

An obvious target for Labour then, or at least that’s what we would assume. Surely, Labour leaders are not worried about offending the 25 per cent of all Tory MPs who are landlords or even the 12 per cent of their own MPs who rent out property?

Fairer rents now are key, both to finding house deposits in the future and to distributing more cash into the economy, out of the grasp of unscrupulous landlords. A more sensible approach would be to set up an Ofsted-style organisation, given the task of inspecting all rental property and banding it according to size, condition, location, facilities, safety and so on. The rent to be charged would have to be within the confines determined by the band, with increases decided by the government.

On the question of the housing shortfall, is it not possible that the building companies are playing too important a role in the type of housing being built? While it is clear that a significant number of “new” homes can be provided by refurbishing and renovating old properties, it is also evident that some radical thinking is required if homes are to be built which can be properly afforded by young people eager to take their first steps on the property ladder.

A law stating that new homes must be lived in by the buyer — and not rented to tenants — would be a start. 

Then there’s the need for solar panels on all new and newly refurbished homes, with owners having the power to insist on tree-reduction where necessary.

Cannot modern technology provide alternative and cheaper materials for home construction, perhaps akin to that used for mobile homes? Are not two or three storey buildings feasible, with each floor comprising a two-bedroom flat, and the ground floor having the garden? Not all “affordable” housing has to be in the form of tower blocks.

A ministry for housing would seem eminently desirable and sensible, so why isn’t it in the Labour manifesto? If permission is granted to replace old and unused property with flats should not all of them — not a small proportion — be “affordable,” in the £80-175,000 range?

Labour is in need of a serious boost in the opinion polls, and the country needs a fairer system of home allocation. It is not a case for rocket scientists.