In this article, Alan Fraser (Member of CNM’s Housing and Communities Leadership Board and Proprietor, Alan Fraser Consultancy) provides some reflections on the Centre’s recent guest lecture from Lisa Nandy MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, Communities & Local Government).
On 16th June 2023, the Centre for the New Midlands Housing & Communities Board held their second annual lecture. After playing host to the Under Secretary of State for Housing & Rough Sleeping last year, it was always going to be a tough act to follow but it was great to be able to welcome Lisa Nandy MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to the West Midlands. It also provided an opportunity to listen to Labour’s plans for housing and compare these with what we heard from the current government last year.
It is testament to the chaos that we have seen in government that in the thirteen months since Eddie Hughes MP delivered the inaugural CNM Housing & Communities lecture there have been three prime ministers and two subsequent ministers for housing and rough sleeping who followed Mr Hughes’s resignation last summer. Housebuilding targets have been set, modified and then ultimately abolished too, so the context of Ms Nandy’s speech was that it was difficult for her to criticise the specifics of government policy given that the government has not been able to commit to one for any period of time during her eighteen months shadowing the DLUHC (Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities) brief.
But it is clear that there is a housing crisis and Ms Nandy’s speech identified the problem as the ‘Wild West’ (sic) private rented sector. Labour proposes two responses to this.
The first is greater regulation of the sector to drive up standards and drive out rogue landlords. This will involve titling the balance of power back from landlords to tenants through a new Tenants’ Charter and a new Decent Homes Standard written into law. Allied to these policies Labour aims to make social housing the second largest tenure (after owner occupation) once again. The commitment here is openly and proudly to develop more and better council housing. This is an interesting policy shift from the last Labour government, which followed the previous Conservative administration’s attachment to housing associations. There seems to be an acknowledgement that there is little willingness or interest in the housing association sector in developing social housing in anything like the numbers that are required to tackle the rising levels of homelessness that we are seeing.
Whilst the commitment to new council housing was presented very much as a positive commitment, those working in the housing association sector may care to reflect on how their position as the uncontested primary delivery mechanism for new social housing has been so badly squandered over the past decade. They may also need to do some pretty quick thinking about what the future may hold if all the money which has been earmarked for them to deliver social housing is now going to be diverted to councils.
Interestingly, Ms Nandy was very complimentary about our hosts for the lecture, Witton Lodge Community Association, and I don’t think I was entirely imagining the sense that she gave that Labour wanted to see small-scale community-based housing associations make a comeback.
If that felt like a bold initiative, what was to follow was even more so. Not only do Labour want to see councils develop more and better social housing, they also want to see some of the housing that has been lost to the social rented sector brought back into public ownership. Ms Nandy was clear that this would involve new powers for councils to seek Compulsory Purchase Orders where buildings were left empty or were not being properly managed or maintained. There is also a keenness to use new CPO powers to tackle land banking. And Labour also want to look at ways of sharing the unearned growth in land value between land owners and the state. Whilst few will shed any tears for property developers and speculators, it is easy to see how such a policy could have a negative impact on private sector housing development, which all parties accept will still be needed in very substantial numbers.
But there is no doubt that something dramatic has to be done if we are to reverse the trend of rising homelessness. Labour’s prescription certainly fits that bill. The challenge, as the current government have found on many issues, is imposing dramatic solutions on a sector that is resistant to changes which are against their interests. It is also worth remembering that prior to the last Labour government, one of Ms Nandy’s predecessors, Frank Dobson, acknowledged that council housing had failed to keep pace with people’s aspirations and what was needed was a revitalised private rented sector.
The growth of buy-to-let began in the Blair years, so it could be argued that in attempting to curtail its growth and return to council housing Labour are proposing to solve a problem of their own making with a solution that has already failed. But at the moment, it is very clear to everyone both inside and outside the sector that the current housing market is not working in the interests of many people and abuses of the system are not simply going unpunished, they are frequently being actively rewarded financially. In that context, with no clear plan being posited by the other side, Ms Nandy may have an opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.
Let’s hope that if she gets that chance she will be equally keen to come back to the West Midlands in a few years and give another CNM lecture reflecting on what has worked – and what hasn’t.
ABOUT OUR AUTHOR:
Alan Fraser has worked for nearly thirty years in the fields of social housing and homelessness, all of it in the West Midlands.
He has worked for a charity, a large housing association, a local authority, and a stock transfer housing association before becoming a chief executive within the YMCA federation. He now works as an independent housing consultant.