Paula Mitchell (London Socialist Party secretary) and Suzanne Muna (Unite LE1111 housing branch secretary and Unite executive)
The cat is out of the bag. As the Financial Times reported on 13 November: “Chancellor George Osborne is considering a radical multibillion-pound plan to privatise the government’s stake in housing associations”.
Coupled with the new Housing Bill, the Tories aim to complete what Margaret Thatcher started – the end of social housing.
The government recently announced that housing associations, which are independent charities, would be brought into the public sector. Housing associations have a debt of about £60 billion and a £45 billion historic public grant. Bringing them into the public sector is simply in order that they can be fully privatised.
This step would be the biggest privatisation yet – a windfall for the Treasury, and opening up £133 billion of assets to private profit.
Already, one of the largest housing associations, Genesis, has said it no longer wants to be in the business of social housing, but to build for sale, rent at market rates, or shared ownership. Inside Housing reported: “Neil Hadden, CEO of Genesis, references Inside Housing’s recent survey finding that around a third of housing associations will stop building sub-market rent homes. He suspects the other two thirds are ‘lying’.”
The development of social housing was a huge step forward for working class people. But the ruling class has never granted us anything out of kindness.
The post-World War One government subsidy for council housing was in response to mass rent strikes and the Russian Revolution. The parliamentary secretary to the Local Government Board said: “The money we are going to spend on housing is an insurance against Bolshevism and revolution”.
The 1945 Labour government created the welfare state, including large scale council house building.
But the rich have never accepted a social responsibility for housing and their political representatives have spent the last 35 years dismantling it. Thatcher’s Right to Buy legislation in 1980 forced councils to sell off homes at a massive discount to tenants.
One million houses were sold within ten years. At the same time, spending restrictions reduced new council house building. Then in 1988, Large Scale Voluntary Transfer enabled the moving of housing stock from council ownership into housing association control (which was then massively accelerated under Tony Blair).
This government of the rich wants to provide massive profits for landlords, building companies and property speculators, while immiserating working class people.
So far they have gotten away with it. Their biggest advantage has been the unwillingness of right-wing leaders of the trade unions and Labour to mount a fight.
But now the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership shows the potential for a fight. The huge enthusiasm for an anti-austerity programme needs to be organised.
Britain faces a massive housing crisis, and the eye of the storm is London.
‘Social cleansing’ is official – statistics published in the summer suggest that tens of thousands of families have been forced out of inner London in the last five years. 50,000 have been placed outside of their borough by local councils.
Austerity attacks – the bedroom tax, benefit caps, pay cuts and job losses – and a massive lack of housing that ordinary people can afford means working class people are driven out and areas become ‘gentrified’.
In April only 43 houses for sale in the capital were affordable to first-time buyers. Small two-bed houses in normal working class streets sell for half a million pounds.
Luxury housing typically features apartments at up to £12 million. Prices have soared as international billionaires buy up property.
In last six years overseas companies have bought £100 billion of property in London. Much of this is purely speculative. A third of the property on ‘Billionaires’ Row’ in Hampstead, to a value of £350 million, is lying empty.
Playground for the rich
Government policies such as Help to Buy and very low interest rates, along with the influx of overseas wealth, have blown a housing bubble just waiting for another crisis.
Private rents are sky high. The average rent for a two-bed home is now over £2,200 a month.
Average rents take up over half the pay of people like teachers and social workers, and would consume the whole pay of lower paid workers. Rip-off estate agents add to the misery with huge fees.
And private rent has little security of tenure. Evictions of private rented households in England have doubled in five years.
In the year up to September 2015, 22,531 private renting households were forced out of their homes. As Shelter comment: “Tragically, this year marks the shocking milestone of 100,000 children waking up homeless at Christmas”.
The government has encouraged growth of the buy-to-let market, which is now 20% of all housing wealth. As well as big landlords this now involves large numbers of ordinary people in a precarious effort to secure a ‘pension’ for their future.
And now communities face ‘regeneration’: councils or housing associations hand homes and public land over to private developers, with existing residents shunted out with limited rights to return. For example on the Isle of Dogs in Tower Hamlets, all the housing stock owned by One Housing Group is to be ‘regenerated’, and only 30% will be ‘affordable’.
Housing campaigners estimate that there are 800,000 too few homes in London.
Big numbers of community campaigns have grown up to defend estates against social cleansing, such as BoleynDev 100, Save Our Island Homes, New Era, Focus E15, the Aylesbury, Fred Wigg & John Walsh Towers, Sweets Way and many more. Socialist Party members are involved wherever we can be.
Campaigns can include lobbies and demonstrations, and petitions that force councils to debate. It is important that campaigns strive to involve as many residents as possible, with inclusive democratic organising groups, and seek to appeal to the wider community for support.
Solidarity with those facing unfair eviction from individual homes, as well as blockades and occupations to defend estates, are necessary.
The methods of a hundred years ago could return in the form of rent strikes – especially there is the possibility of this developing on student campuses.
Victories are extremely important both for the people directly involved and in increasing confidence more widely. But at the moment these campaigns tend to be short-term and not linked.
The Socialist Party argues that wherever possible campaigns should be brought together in towns and boroughs, with local demos such as those in Waltham Forest and Haringey, and the London and Wales Marches for Homes earlier this year.
The need for a mass movement is one of the reasons why we demand that trade unions take up housing.
Following a series of high-profile battles over pay and conditions, the Unite housing workers branch has initiated a Sector Standards campaign. The branch also produced a Housing Manifesto with a set of demands that can be used for elections. Other trade unions have also started to campaign on housing needs of their members.
Trade unions can play a crucial role, not only in organising housing and construction workers, but also using their strength and power to fight for homes for all.
Unite housing workers have raised a proposal for a national housing alliance initiated by Unite, holding out the potential of a powerful national body which can draw together the strength of trade unions with community campaigns.
Tories’ Housing Bill
‘Pay to Stay’ requires tenants in social housing on higher incomes to pay market, or near-market, rents. Right to Buy is extended to Housing Association tenants. The subsidy for this is from state funds: the Bill requires councils to dispose of expensive vacant properties to fund new ‘affordable’ housing.
The Bill includes a ‘starter homes provision’, but Shelter has calculated that most will be unaffordable to people on average incomes.
The Bill gives the Secretary of State further powers to intervene (a total of 32 new powers!), including to reduce regulations on housing associations.
A programme to solve the housing crisis
Demands on the Greater London Authority (Assembly and Mayor)
Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader on a programme to build council houses and cap rents. The 2016 London elections give a huge opportunity to fight to end the housing crisis, building on this victory. The GLA controls a budget of £17 billion plus extra from the regional housing fund. It develops a housing strategy for the whole of London which borough councils are expected to comply with. It can use same prudential borrowing that councils can. Thus the GLA has the capacity to be the spearhead of an anti-austerity fight.
- An anti-austerity Greater London Authority could announce an immediate moratorium on ‘social cleansing’ schemes
- It could build houses and take over empty speculative property to provide 800,000 genuinely affordable homes with lifetime tenancies
- It could set a London rent cap
The land is there – Transport for London alone owns 5,700 acres of land. There are plans to build 10,000 homes in the next decade, on 300 acres. But it has the space to build nearly 200,000!
Demands on councils
There are now no excuses left for Labour councils. The Socialist Party is part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which has stood anti-austerity candidates against cutting councillors. We appeal to all Labour councillors to take a stand and act to solve the housing crisis!
Councils could lead a fight, like Liverpool City Council did in the 1980s, when, under a socialist leadership (Militant – now the Socialist Party), they refused to implement Tory cuts. Instead the council built 5,400 council houses, created proper apprenticeships and jobs, and mounted a mass campaign to win the funding from Thatcher’s Tory government.
Using current reserves and borrowing powers there is enough money for councils to build hundreds of thousands of homes.
- Councils should refuse to implement the cuts – including the bedroom tax, benefit caps, council tax cuts and ‘pay to stay’. Immediately cease all evictions due to austerity attacks
- Stop all schemes involving ‘social cleansing’. Renovate council housing without privatisation
- Start a major plan of council house building. Bring privatised housing management back in-house
- Rent controls to cap rents at a genuinely affordable level. Register private landlords to ensure lifetime tenancies, decent homes standards, and no unfair evictions. Set up council lettings agencies as an alternative to rip-off landlords
- Take over long-term empty property to renovate and let as council property
- Enact sector standards for workers in housing. Stop the use of blacklisting firms. £10 an hour minimum wage
How to achieve homes for all – take the wealth off the 1%!
- Tax the super-rich
- Housing benefits that reflect real cost of renting
- Nationalise the large building companies and land
- Nationalise the banks to ensure cheap mortgages
- For a democratic socialist society that puts the needs of the majority, including decent, affordable housing, before the profits of the tiny minority