HQN blog: Lessons for Labour – a ten-point plan for housing

Fresh from addressing the Labour Housing Group, HQN Chief Executive Alistair McIntosh offers the party some home truths.

“What on earth is the point of the Labour Party if it cannot even oppose the mad disaster of railway privatisation?” That’s what Peter Hitchens wrote in his column in the Mail in 2014. And I agree. Labour has to do what it says on the tin. This means building council houses. Lots of them. So it’s great to see that in 'Housing for the Many' John Healey sets about this task. I really like the question he asks. “What more could a Labour Government do to make affordable housing a first choice, not a last resort?”

He hits the nail on the head. At the Grenfell meetings with Ministers, tenants said they were sick and tired of the stigma they get. Sort this out and we’ll make a big dent in the housing crisis. Let’s not forget you can actually build council houses. But you only get to influence other tenures. So it’s the right place to start. What is the lesson of Brexit? The UK government machine, if you can even call it that, is kaput. Labour will only get to do one thing at most in housing. Let’s build.

How do we get affordable housing back on top? This is my ten point plan.

  1. Build the best looking homes with the best space standards in the best places
    The chief of Notting Hill Genesis has a book out. It goes by the name of Making Life More Beautiful. That’s a good idea. Get yourself a copy of Cook’s Camden. When Sydney Cook was in charge of building our houses he hired the top architects and pushed into the elite postcodes. That’s the way to do it. Sydney’s homes are still beautiful to this day. I’d bite your hand off for one in Brunswick Square.
  2. Go for the highest safety standards
    This means doing what Judith Hackitt says now. She has put out a tough set of tests. They need thinking through and acting on.
  3. One nation under a groove – pull together as a team
    I’m afraid to say the housing industry in England is broken. Here today and gone tomorrow ministers just get in the way. That’s why the Green Paper is as late as a train. And as for us. We’d do a lot more if councils and associations could bury the hatchet. You know that council companies and associations will fight each other for sites. No good will come of it. Sort this out like adults without double handling. If you don’t you might as well send blank cheques to the lawyers, consultants and builders. By contrast in Wales the Minister and the landlords of all stripes work together. Maybe it helps that most of the chiefs are women. Can we learn from this?
  4. Accept only the best management
    Even the top Russian hackers would struggle to make a complaint to some landlords. It’s time to bring back inspection. But we should make it a bit slicker. The Tories clipped the wings of the regulator and left it to comment on the accounts. Labour should get it looking out for people. That’s what Jack Straw did when he shifted the focus of the old Audit Commission. Come on Labour do what you’re good at!
  5. Cut people in – no regeneration without a square deal for the folk that live there
    Of course you can build more homes on some estates. But it’s no wonder tenants are worried. What will the building works be like? Do we get a good home at the end of it? We need to get better at distributing the benefits here. And let’s make sure that any ballots have firm commitments.
  6. Carpe diem
    We see that there are 30,000 new homes that no one can buy in London. Private landlords are giving up the ghost right, left and centre. Can’t we just snap these up at keen prices? Even when Sydney Cook was firing on all cylinders we bought homes off the shelf. Of course Mr Streader the borough valuer made sure we did not pay too much for them. We need him today! Some councils are using cheap PWLB loans to pay silly money for things. And the associations that outbid each other for 106 homes are just as bad. I can tell you right now Mr Streader would not have allowed this. This silliness is why Labour might need to be careful about turning the taps back on. John Healey should think about setting tests to make sure money is well spent.
  7. Go for scale
    Why do the public love nurses but not us? That’s a good question the chief of Shelter asks. Well there is a simple answer. We all expect to use the NHS. Even a tycoon needs to rely on A and E. There’s no getting away from it. But far fewer folk expect to get a home from a council or association. If we boost market share with good quality homes we will be more relevant. That’s how you get rid of the stigma once and for all.
  8. Get past London
    Labour has won London. But Labour needs to widen its appeal. And only a fool thinks London alone can solve the London housing crisis. Heseltine is right the rest of the country needs a boost too. If we don’t do that the capital will always run the risk of being jam packed and pricey. And it needs a bit more than Boris building a few buses in Northern Ireland. Much as I love North London, Labour has to do better.

    Lord Adonis gave a speech all about the great things he was doing in London to the CIH in Manchester last year. He really was that bad. It’s time to take the blinkers off.
  9. Strike the right balance on rents
    These need to be cheap enough so that tenants can save for their kids. But high enough to pay for repairs. Labour made headway on this under Nick Raynsford. You know what to do.
  10. Just go for it
    Let’s have some sheer unadulterated passion for council housing and other types of social housing. Learn from the excellent work John Prescott did on Decent Homes with his laser like focus. You get one shot at this. As Keith Hill said at the time it’s payback for our people who have suffered so much. Why not put together a task force of the brightest and best to push this through. Or as we say in Glasgow – get intae them.

(This blog is based on a speech to Labour’s Housing Group in Camden Town Hall 16th June 2018)