Local Government, Political Education

On everyone having a secure home as a human right, ten thoughts

The following is a summary of the presentation given by blogger and activist Ronnie Hughes at our Political Education Event – Grassroots Politics and Alternatives from May 2018, that was chaired by Lena Šimić, Walton’s Political Education Officer.
Ronnie has also published this on his blog A Sense of Place, which is well worth checking out, but has kindly agreed that we can also publish it here.
You can download a list of Ronnie’s 10 points by clicking here.

Write-ups of the talks given on the night by Tim Jeeves and Irene Leonard can be found by clicking the links.

Introduction

From a lifetime working in and around housing and communities and at the request of the Walton Constituency Labour Party these are my ‘Top 10’ thoughts, a mixture of policies and practicalities, on how we might go about fixing the wide ranging housing crisis we are now in. Where we have increasing numbers of the homeless on the streets, brutal benefits and immigration systems that cause much of the homelessness and then pay most of their housing moneys on to private landlords, grown up children still living with their parents or, again, paying an indecent proportion of their incomes to those same private landlords for short term exploitative tenancies. I could go on.
This, then, is necessarily a mix of local and national thoughts.
And while I was reducing my many thoughts to these ten principal ideas, the Labour Party nationally issued a green paper aimed at opening up discussions on what a future Labour Government might do about it all. A welcome but limited paper in my view, which I’ll refer to now and then, but which didn’t cause me to change any of my suggestions. Here goes.

1 Establish having a secure home as a basic human right

The market won’t and never has provided secure homes as of right for the great variety of people and needs that now makes up our country. So a future Labour Government will need to accept and promote this as a right and work out, with local Councils, how to deliver this for both home owners and tenants. The secure homes created might be owned or rented, as not everyone wants to own their own home. But renting shouldn’t be seen, as it increasingly is, as a last resort for the poor. The human right thought is proposed by Jeremy Corbyn in the introduction to the current Green Paper, but after that mention the paper largely tinkers with the established housing establishment rather than considering a more radical approach, which I believe will be necessary.

2 Reinvent Council Housing

Council Housing is the only realistic way of providing mass rented public housing with democratic accountability that we’ve yet come up with. It was invented here in Liverpool in the C19th because the private market, then as now, simply wouldn’t provide homes in sufficient and affordable numbers. But we’ll need to do it better than the last time round, including seeing how the building of new homes can work for local workers as well as developers in generating incomes that stay within the local economy. Also, policy makers will need to recognise that housing can’t be done in isolation. Secure homes, quality healthcare, education and fair incomes, in particular, need to be seen as prime governmental responsibilities, the sound and linked bases for a confident future society to build our lives around.

3 Be secure and safe from the cradle to the grave

A home, owned or rented for all, is then one of the core requirements for having a life in a healthy and stable society. If you live here, I passionately believe, you’re entitled to have somewhere secure and safe to live (which is why these thoughts don’t cover specific needs as if they’re special, we’re all special). So for rentals we need to reintroduce permanent tenancies, together with transfers and choice, as of right, as lifetime needs change. Policy makers also need to explore alternatives to home owners being so exposed to exploitation by a rapacious property market at vulnerable times of change in their lives too. Where we live is about neighbourhoods as well as homes. And also about how we live. So housing policy needs linking to other basics such as health, education, employment, transport and support services for those of us with particular needs, together with a wholesale reform of the brutalised welfare system. And of course these homes, in both their management and design, need to guarantee levels of safety as well as security that private and even supposed ‘tenant management organisations’ have shown they can no longer be relied on to provide in a commodified economy where costs are relentlessly cut, at the cost of human lives.

4 Create homes we can truly afford

The property market is progressively commodifying homes and needs controlling rather than trusting if we are to get to the position where everyone can afford to live in a home they can properly afford as a human right. We need, in fact, to break the nation’s and much of the Labour Party’s obsessions with this market dependant way of providing housing. It’s too essential for that. We’ll therefore need to think about setting maximum proportions of income for either mortgages or rents that would be considered fair and would leave people with decent disposable incomes for having a fulfilling life. Linked to something like median local income levels. Fair Rents should be reintroduced for public and private housing, to make homes truly affordable and end so much housing benefit being paid to what would then become a reducing proportion of private landlords.

5 Try out new ideas

There never was a golden age where everyone had the home they needed. So policy makers need to be doing new things. Like enabling the local ownership of land, properties and money through locally owned banks and credit unions. Encouraging group and community co-ownership and shared responsibilities through such vehicles as asset-locked co-ops, community land trusts and mutual societies. And it’s hardly new, but policy makers need to be responding to and anticipating climate change like it’s really happening, as an integral part of all planning and development decisions.

6 Learn from what’s worked before

Like council housing itself, some other long abandoned housing policies and practices are worth another look. I’ve already mentioned Fair Rents and secure tenancies. Something like Housing Action Areas (HAAs) as carried out in Liverpool in the 1970s and 80s might also be worth revisiting as a method of helping neighbourhoods recover from years of low private market care and investment, in both rented and bought homes. The original HAAs were enabled by the huge increases in public spending introduced by the 1974 Housing Act. This time round, along with possible new national investments, policy makers could look at developing the local economy, along ‘Preston’ lines as we’ve also heard tonight, incorporating some of the new approaches just mentioned to get things moving.

7 Sort out the housing associations

The Labour Green Paper places considerable future reliance on social housing providers,
reasoning that councils and the private market can’t be expected to provide all the kinds or volumes of housing that will turn out to be necessary. I get this logic but think this trust in housing associations might be misplaced, with many of the larger ones in particular seeming to have left their founding principles so far behind them that even the term ‘social housing’ is no longer widely trusted. Therefore we’ll need to sort out which housing associations, and they do exist, can be trusted for the future, and which should be seen as now part of the private market, and therefore part of our problem.
Finally, three more local thoughts. Thinking particularly about working where we are and with current reality.

8 Using our existing homes and powers

We have a high number of empty homes in Liverpool and the City Region, arguably as many as 20,000 of them, and policy makers could build on work already done through community land trusts, homes for £1 and other initiatives to bring more of them back into use considerably faster than we have been doing so far. Existing powers to take actions leading to compulsorily purchase plus transfers of ownership from inactive owners, including social landlords in some neighbourhoods, will need to be much more pro-actively used and seen to be used by council officers than currently. Possibly in conjunction with the declaration of HAAs and promoting some of the new ideas mentioned earlier to get empty homes lived in again. The existing policy of merely penalising empty home owners, as is proposed again in the Green Paper, being a particularly ineffective way of achieving this, as local experience around the streets of Liverpool has shown.

9 Work faster and better locally

The inter-departmental culture of the City Council, like most large organisations, is slow and resistant to change. Particularly now when so many council posts have been lost to the effects of political austerity. So where existing ways of doing things within and between departments are shown to be slowing everything down, policy makers need to look at ditching adherences to outdated due processes, and introducing new cross-departmental working methods where Council policies and decisions can get moving and be delivered much quicker than frustrating experience shows they often are. This will be particularly necessary where new methods and ideas are being tried out. This more local focus should also include a greater willingness to support local communities and organisations, as opposed to a perceived tendency to view all external investment as good, with the resultant low quality buildings and moribund private sites we currently see around the city.

10 And recognising we’re not all the same, work with the people, really

‘Community led housing’ is more talked about than understood. And isn’t always the answer, particularly where previous council and governmental policies have dispersed and destroyed the communities of various places around the city. But as a starting point for all neighbourhood developments it beats existing consultation and planning practices easily. So council policy makers and officers need to work carefully with people and projects all over the City establishing the basic approach that: everywhere is different; we’re all different; people and places really matter; imposed solutions don’t work; having a say and control really count; and that going with local energies can and does change things, for the better, for everyone.

Conclusion

I don’t pretend that these ten thoughts are everything or even enough. But they come from a lifetime’s experience and are offered quietly as a starting point for debating and thinking about how a Labour Government and a local Labour Council, with a still large majority, can begin turning a long and deep housing crisis into a future where everyone can expect to have a secure home, as a human right, from the cradle to the grave. It’s about time.

Ronnie Hughes
May 2018

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