Housing estate. Photo: Miles Glendenning/CC
Housing estate. Photo: Miles Glendenning/CC

Paul Kershaw, Chair Unite LE1111 housing workers branch

The Conservative Party has been trumpeting “British Homes for British Workers” as a slogan linked to a government policy consultation officially titled ‘British Homes for British People’. The right-wing populist party Reform UK has a point when it accuses the Tories of stealing its policies.

Ministers talk of the scarcity of social housing as if it resulted from homes being used by non-British people, yet over 90% of social lettings already go to UK nationals.

Refusal to invest in council housing

SHAC (the Social Housing Action Campaign) was widely quoted in the media arguing that: “The real issue is not immigrants taking homes, but the acute and long-standing refusal of successive governments to invest in council housing. This is what needs to be addressed, and it is exactly what they don’t want us to discuss.”

In a letter to the prime minister and housing secretary, 17 housing sector bodies correctly write that the plans would amount to “further rationing of an already scarce resource” that would not address the housing shortage and the net loss of social-rented homes since 2011.

Social-rented homes decline

Meanwhile, in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, housing m-inister Lee Rowley, rejected claims the Tories had not built enough social housing since 2010. The government’s own Regulator of Social Housing reports that there has been a decrease of 225,102 genuine social-rented homes since 2012. Rowley seeks to mislead by blurring the definition of social housing.

In 2010, funding for affordable housing in England was cut by 63%, causing an 81% fall in delivery of new social-rented homes. In 2022-23, only 9,561 social homes were delivered in England, compared to nearly 40,000 in 2010. In the same year, 52,800 households were accepted by councils as requiring help because they were homeless or in danger of becoming homeless.

Homelessness at record levels

Stating the obvious, Gavin Smart of the Chartered Institute of Housing commented that: “We’ve currently got 1.4 million people on the social housing waiting list and it’s growing by the day. Homelessness is at record levels and councils are struggling with the cost of rising temporary accommodation. We urgently need to increase the supply of social-rented homes – that means building more and reducing the loss generated by policies such as right to buy.”

The Tories’ proposals must be opposed, and they are a warning of their willingness to stoke up racism and xenophobia to try to divide workers. This is likely to become still more toxic when they are pushed into opposition. Such policies would be effectively countered by a Labour government expanding the supply of social-rented housing and stopping the right to buy. Unfortunately, Labour is now explicitly committed to not carrying out either policy.

Unite policy

Unite can play an important role in communities facing a desperate housing crisis by pointing to the real causes and campaigning on Unite policy of a mass council house building programme and ending ‘right to buy.’ Along with rent control and restoring benefits, these policies would make a real difference in working-class communities.

In a warning of the dishonest role right-wing politicians will play under a Labour government, former home secretary Priti Patel wrote to the prime minister and secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities to press the government for more funding for councils. Of course, she didn’t think of this in the years she spent as a minister! But the right will feel free to attack Labour using these dishonest arguments under a Labour government.

Not on offer from Labour

Labour has repeatedly pledged to keep to the government’s tax and spend plans, and specifically to not put public money into housebuilding. We need more social-rented housing, and that is not now on offer from the Labour frontbench. While the idea of public spending is dismissed, it is important to note that private landlords are set to receive six times more from the government than the total spend on ‘affordable’ housing over the next five years, according to figures from the New Economic Foundation.

 Fighting for Unite’s housing policy will be a crucial part of the fight against the far right. We need to keep our union’s political strategy under discussion. How can we get election candidates who support the unions policies? News that Birmingham City Council is considering closing its housing waiting list as part of its plan to implement 28% cuts rather than fighting the cuts is a further warning; a party of brutal austerity will not be able to answer the far right.