What Kind of Housing Model Should The Left Build?

This is intended to be a fuller version of a comment piece I wrote for HuffPost UK. My original intention was to write something which emphasised that as a democratic socialist I believe that building a swathe of council housing and introducing rent control, while positive and progressive, will not be enough to create an equitable model of housing. Nor do I believe that resolving the current housing crisis would be synonymous with establishing a fair system of housing. This piece is a first stab at envisioning what a housing system which suits human need and the common good would look like, though it is only a preliminary attempt to do so.

The Thatcherite consensus is unwinding. Politicians and commentators from across the spectrum are now acknowledging that our whole economic model is failing. And in terms of housing policy, the right’s agenda couldn’t be more loathed right now. Few people will take Tory housing policies seriously, Downing Street’s new beloved policy — to encourage landlords to sell properties by giving them tax breaks — is being laughed at. Not unrelated to this is the reality of Tory ministers presiding over a deep housing crisis, from renter’s poverty to rough sleeping, then slapping themselves on the back for the small amount of social housing being constructed each year.

This has been a fertile environment for a revival of Labour’s traditional commitments to council housing, rent regulation and security of tenure. Yet the left’s wonks, party activists and Corbynism’s outriders have all struggled to envision an alternative which goes beyond the social democratic policies of the post-war era. While Labour’s housing platform contains much of the essential, immediate demands needed to bring about a housing model which meets the basic needs of the many, it does not offer a serious transformation in the way we live – and the left must think seriously about what this transformation would look like.

Labour’s current housing policies do offer a bold, progressive alternative to the overpriced, deregulated mess presided over by the Tories, but as socialists we should question whether this is enough and begin to think of what a left-wing alternative in housing would really look like. Would it be a modern rendition of post-war era with its combination of genuinely affordable council housing and relatively affordable home-ownership? Or would it be a society in which housing is far less of a commodity and is not only affordable, but accountable to residents and run from the bottom up?

That latter demand may seem dewy-eyed and outlandish, but it stands to reason that the Corbyn project’s desire for a serious social, political and economic ‘transformation’ cannot simply be based around demands for affordability and medium-term security.

The party’s continued commitment to three-year tenancies, a policy developed under Ed Miliband, alongside commitments to building swathes of ‘genuinely affordable’ homes and tentative rent controls, are highly welcome developments. They offer evidence that the next Labour government will offer serious, lasting and beneficial change to many working class people and insecure renters. It is an offering that is clearly worthwhile, but we should also ask whether this is enough for future generations.

A longer term project for the left would acknowledge that speculation, profiteering from peoples housing — be it tenancies or mortgages — and the profoundly unequal ownership of land are contributing to serious social harm and would work to envision a real alternative.

Beyond this set of left-leaning policies there is a need to challenge the profound iniquities in the housing sector and build a new model of how housing is provided in the UK. The classic combination of pro-tenant regulation and a non-profit, publicly owned section of the housing market, in the form of council houses, may not be a sufficient enough break.

These kind of reforms could bring about the end of the crisis of affordability, or at least its sharp end, but they might only offer a partial challenge to the problems which helped create the crisis in the first place. The UK is characterised by vastly unequal ownership of land — which is often both passed down from father to father and the source of extraordinary, unearned fortunes — with less than 1% of landowners owning nearly half of all UK land. Efforts to address this were touched upon in the Labour manifesto, with the prospect of a Land Value Tax (an essential policy), but a good deal more would likely need to be done to bring about an equitable distribution. Returning privatised land back into public hands and attempting to develop and expand community land trusts would help to tackle these inequalities. The work the New Economics Foundation have done on this is instructive — and helps to highlight the subtle but pernicious role of unequal land ownership. That being said bringing about an equitable distribution of land and seriously reducing land’s status is a commodity would be a momentous task, which requires much thought from the left.

Ownership of rented accomodation is perhaps the second key battleground, with the last generation of working class Britain increasingly have to work to pay for unaffordable housing — and to effectively subsidise either their landlord or their mortgage lender. A drastically different model is clearly needed.

One such alternative could involve a modified approach to social housing which priorities a variety of forms of social ownership ranging from housing co-operatives to council housing to reformed Housing Associations, eventually developing a very substantial bloc of non-profit housing run on the basis of social need. Housing co-ops — accomodation jointly owned and democratically ran for their residents — have been particularly neglected by Labour’s hierarchies, despite their enormous potential in providing affordable, social accommodation without the concern of top-down interference. The end-goal of this would be to establish a very sizable ‘social sector’ of housing, including council, co-operative and other forms of socialised housing, where everybody who doesn’t own (or want to own) their own home would be able to possess their own house and have meaningful control over it.

Elements of the co-operative model could also be transferred over to other forms of social housing, with the intention of seriously expanding tenants’ rights and autonomy. Housing Associations could be brought under public control, and given a new system of ownership, to ensure they realise their status as ‘social’ housing, rather than as a fudge between the private and public sectors. This would resolve their peculiar status as private sector charities which receive state funding, though some thought needs to be given toward whether a model akin to council housing or a model akin to mutuals would be more effective. But either way, reform of Housing Associations could prove to be a key plank of a distinctively left housing policy — and ensure that a major housebuilding programme actually provides the kind of social housing that the left would like to see.

And alongside ending the right-to-buy there could be a concerted effort to bring those former council houses which have fallen into the private rented sector back into public hands. Rather than simply accepting that former council houses are now (often extortionately priced) commodities, the left should be demanding their return as social housing, as part of an effort to redress the tremendous social damage wrought during the Thatcher era. This a recognition that housing that was built to provide highly affordable, stable accomodation for those on comparatively low incomes should remain as such.

Many on the left need to be thinking about what an alternative housing model would look like, one which delivers more than the left’s housing policies in the post-war era or the relatively bold reformism of Labour’s 2017 housing document. These are not demands for today or tomorrow, or a clear set of policies, but instead an indication of the kind of direction the left ought to take. I have also left ought any direct discussion of the scourge of rental poverty, which remained stubbornly persistent even during New Labour’s period of increased social spending, and I have left out discussion of homelessness and the extractive activity of big housing developers.

Affordability is ultimately just one battle, albeit a crucial one, in the effort to bring about an equitable system of housing. The left’s job is to challenge the status of housing as a simple means to generating profit and to look seriously at the possibilities of a different housing system — one based on human need, equity and the common good.

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Adam Peggs

Adam Peggs

Southerner. Half-Gujarati. Socialist. Internationalist. I write about economics, housing policy, Labour Party history and British politics.