Week 2: Villain – The Tories

by Jackie_South on January 10, 2016

Tory_housing-villainThis week, the Conservatives win our award for the greatest villains of the last seven days

You would be given for missing it, given the media’s obsession with the inner turmoil of the Labour Party rather than anything the actual government of our country is actually doing, but this week has seen the House of Commons debate one of the most damaging pieces of right-wing ideologically-driven legislation in my lifetime. Thatcher had nothing on this.

The Housing and Planning Bill shows that the Conservative Party now see social housing as something that must be destroyed. To pay for housing association tenants to have the Right to Buy, it is forcing councils to sell off its higher value council homes to foot the bill: just at the time when the homeless lists are hitting record levels. How many would councils have to sell? We have no idea, as the Bill says that it would be up to the Secretary of State to make up an invoice for each council to tell them how much they have to get in, without any right of challenge for the council on the size of the bill.

It is watering down councils’ powers to decide planning applications, despite the fact that there are almost half a million homes with planning permission that have remained unbuilt. It has redefined “affordable housing” requirements in planning applications again to include homes for sale for up to £450,000.

It is forcing social landlords to charge near market-rent levels to its tenants if they earn moderate wages. So, a couple in London earning £39,999 between them pay a council rent, but if they get a £1 pay rise to £40,000, their rent could treble to 80% of the market rent levels typical for private rented flats on council estates under the new “Pay to Stay” rules.

All of this works to reduce the supply of genuinely affordable housing at a time when the housing market is putting private sector owned and rented property beyond the pocket of many, particularly in London.

Those were the original proposals when this bill started, but rather than listen to the criticisms, the government have instead made amendments to make matters worse.

In the committee stage, they introduced the idea that new council tenants would no longer have a tenancy for life (if they behaved themselves) but one limited to a period between two and five years. The big problem with this is that it would also include existing tenants if they move voluntarily to another property – so, if you decide you want to downsize (freeing up a home for a family that needs it) you lose your lifetime tenancy. That’s a pretty hefty disincentive for council tenants to do the right thing.

Then, as the Bill was being debated in the Commons (in a debate that started in the early hours of the morning, to avoid press coverage) a further amendment was moved to allow developers to get someone other than the local council to assess their planning application. Remember: with half a million homes remaining unbuilt despite having permission, councils are not the problem in all this. This backdoor privatisation of the planning process is probably doomed: even if assessed privately, those that are currently subject to being agreed by a planning committee will still need to be decided by one, who of course are less likely to be steered by a private assessment than by one by their own officers. This sounds like a change that developers would soon find useless.

On the day of the debate, we also had the rank dishonesty of Zac Goldsmith and David Cameron announcing that in London there would be twice as many affordable homes built a were lost through the property. Why do I say this is dishonest? Well, the first £104k of any sale goes into the kitty for housing association right to buy discounts. There is no way that you could build two homes, except in the most exceptional circumstances, for what is left anywhere in Inner London. The only way to achieve this is to effectively socially cleanse Inner London: sell Inner London council properties to build new homes on the capital’s outermost fringes.

Then today we have Cameron’s announcement about demolishing 100 council estates around the country. He is putting forward the princely sum of £140m for this: if we say that the average estate in question had 500 homes, that works out at £2,800 per home. That makes Natalie Bennett’s “brain fade” on the Green housing policy look positively well considered in comparison. This is not about reproviding social housing, this is about replacing it with those £450,000 “starter homes”.

And if Cameron really wanted to tackle “sink estates”, surely forcing the better-paid families living on them through Pay To Stay is the last thing he would be doing?

All of this seems to ignore the spin about council housing by the Coalition government. They set council’s housing revenue accounts as being self-financing – they get no support from the state, and so there is no justification in treating council tenants as part of the welfare debate – it sits entirely outside of it, and council housing is not subsidised by the public pocket, it is self-financing.

It also ignores that, despite right to buy, levels of owner-occupation has not shifted much in recent years. That is because almost half of right-to-buy property ends up not being lived in by the owner, but rented out in the private market. The big shift there has been in housing is from council housing to the private rented sector, at rents that are likely to be three or four times as much for the same property.

Unless you can afford a £450,000 home, this government is making your life worse when it comes to housing. The Housing and Planning Bill have shown that the government is determined to stop council housing being part of the housing picture, and to make life more uncomfortable too for those in housing association properties.

Not that you would know that from most of our press. Our government is free to flog off and demolish truly affordable homes in the middle of the housing crisis as they continue to obsess about the gossip of the Westminster Village.

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