Paul Kershaw, chair Unite LE1111 housing branch and Socialist Party member
Over a million households sit on council housing waiting lists, and that’s only those who are allowed to join the queue. Eight million people have some kind of housing need, and in 2019 only 6,338 new social rented homes were built.
Meanwhile, the UK’s big housebuilders are booming. Britain’s second-largest housebuilder Barrett’s reported profits before tax of £810 million for the year to the end of June, compared with £490 million in the previous year, and it reports that the year ahead looks promising.
Bellway reports that in the year to 31 July, revenue jumped 40.3% to £3.1 billion and pre-tax profits more than doubled to £479 million. It’s a great time for the shareholders – UK housebuilding is a success story for them. They make huge profits building unsafe, poor-quality homes.
The real cost of a house is not just the bricks and mortar, but the land it stands on. Land prices have rocketed up by 400% since 1995. It is estimated that land accounted for just 2% of the price of residential property in the 1930s, while now it is closer to 70%. Landowners do not produce anything to get these profits. Capitalist politicians are fond of talking about their concerns for ‘hard working families’ but have presided over policies that give huge benefits to landowners for no work at all.
Land ownership in Britain is shrouded in secrecy, but it’s estimated that 25,000 landowners, just 0.04% of the population, own half of the land in England. None of them will be the hard-working families that politicians claim to be interested in.
The Tories talk of getting rid of ‘red tape’ in the planning system regulating the use of land. They are not seeking to meet the desperate need for quality sustainable and affordable housing, whatever the noises about levelling up and ‘build build build’. They are seeking to knock away obstacles to capital, to make it easier to rake in profits whatever the impact on communities or the environment.
Of course, this is no surprise when you remember that property tycoons have donated more than £60 million to the Tory party over the last ten years; 20% of its income. Under pressure, the Tories have been forced to temporarily retreat.
In reality, land is traded in the hope that planning permission will open opportunities for huge speculative profits. Developers can make a killing simply by getting planning permission. Land values can increase 275 times over once a developer gets permission.
Secretive developers lean on planning authorities to let them build what is profitable, whether it is huge towers in suburban areas or ‘exclusive’ developments destined for overseas investors.
Developers hold speculative ‘land banks’ and profit from trading them. Around 90% of applications for planning permission are approved in England. Consent has been granted for between 800,000 and one million new houses that remain unbuilt. Builders sit on land until the most profitable moment to build on it. Red tape is not the problem.
In cities, the government promotes ‘permitted development rights’, which knock away planning controls to allow offices to be converted into homes. A government report found they deliver “worse quality residential environments than planning permission conversions in relation to a number of factors widely linked to the health, well-being and quality of life of future occupiers”. Its analysis found that just 22.1% of the homes delivered meet national space standards. Local councils are responsible for planning decisions and, disgracefully, many Labour councils fail to put up serious opposition to these developments.
In recent years, ‘affordable’ housing has been built based on crumbs off the table. Developers are supposed to provide some proportion of housing in any development for ‘affordable’ homes. When they don’t dodge this requirement on the basis of ‘viability’, the ‘affordable’ housing can be built for sale and is usually unaffordable. Usually, ‘affordable’ refers to property being 80% of the market price, the government’s own Affordable Housing Commission in 2020 concluded that most of these homes are “clearly unaffordable to those on mid to lower incomes”. This is not a serious basis to meet housing need.
The lack of genuinely affordable new housing, its poor quality and lack of environmental sustainability, is not a mystery, it’s a consequence of developers’ drive for profit. We need a mass council house building programme based on nationalising land and the big housebuilders. By nationalising the banks, cheap low-interest mortgages could be made readily available for home-buyers. As part of a socialist planned economy, decisions about what housing to build and where could be made democratically to meet housing need.
Residents fighting back for housing safety
Pete Mason, chair, Barking Reach Residents Association and East London Socialist Party
When Barking Council got together with the Greater London Assembly to build a substantial housing project on some disused flood-plain, ex-industrial land twenty years ago, it dismissed the idea of council housing outright. One of the casualties was the safety of the residents.
Now, secretive tax-haven-based Adriatic Land owns large chunks of the Barking Riverside estate, in what has become prime real estate. This is despite the fact that some of the blocks are fire hazards, with one suffering a substantial fire. At least one suffers from black mould, others with poorly installed heating systems potentially face the same.
Elsewhere, blocks built by Bellway Homes have suffered floods which have displaced residents. Others face huge service charge bills to replace flammable balconies.
The all-Labour Barking and Dagenham council and the GLA decided to build an entirely private estate. This has allowed some of the top ten homebuilders, pictured on the cover of the pro-capitalist Spectator magazine as a bunch of gangsters, to swoop in. In a mad-dash for profit, these developers have cut corners, built shoddy homes costing up to £500,000 each, sold the land and buildings on to their mates in tax havens, and then try to deny responsibility for the problems their cost-cutting created.
When the residents’ association started a survey of one block on our estate, owned by London and Quadrant housing association, we were shocked that the very first person we spoke to, pushing a pram across the courtyard, told us she has had no heating for five years, with black mould everywhere. This story was repeated endlessly.
But residents have fought back. We’ve held numerous well-publicised, well-attended meetings and protests, with good media coverage. We’ve forced the builder Bellway to agree to remediate some parts of the estate that narrowly missed burning down completely in 2019, saved by two concrete stairwells and a lot of luck.
We’ve forced recognition of the residents’ association in another part of the estate, and placed residents in control of their buildings in other parts, through the 2002 ‘right to manage’ legislation.
A big online meeting recently forced Bellway to admit to poor workmanship in flats that had suffered flooding, with a promise of remediation. We’ve forced London and Quadrant to replace inadequate radiators throughout phase two of the development. Bellway remain intractable on this issue on the blocks they still own, and has so far refused to remediate some of the flammable balconies.
But local struggles like these must be accompanied by a national plan. Protests are being organised by energetic and determined residents across the country, but they need to take a socialist approach.
The gangster top ten homebuilders must be nationalised, with compensation paid only to small investors and shareholders in genuine need. Then Bellway’s £479 million pre-tax profits, as just one example, can go directly into remediating all the properties that suffer from multiple problems in the cladding crisis, instead of going to dividend payments.
Over decades, the privatisation of safety inspectors has left them doing a paltry job, hand in glove with the builders. And standards in the private sector have fallen drastically, as revealed by the tragedy of Grenfell and the subsequent inquiry. These services must be renationalised. But critically, all publicly owned institutions in the housing sector should have the participation of residents and the trade unions at every level. Just as we demand resident control over our estate, the home building industry should be under democratic workers’ control, bringing together residents, building workers, and other working-class representatives.
The appalling health and safety record in housing shows that new standards must be set in home building. Housing the population safely and in high-standard dwellings requires a mass council house building programme with the decisive involvement of residents from the outset. Homes with concierges and caretakers, and houses with front and back gardens, are all possible if the vast wealth in society is taken out of the hands of the super-rich, including the big developers.
Homelessness: ‘The solution is to build more council housing’
Housing support worker in London
I work as part of a ‘housing first’ project, which involves finding permanent housing for people who have been chronically homeless. The idea is to help move people out of the hostel system, where conditions are awful.
The people that I work with are ‘fortunate’ in that they go straight to the top of the housing waiting lists because they are classed as vulnerable. Despite being top of the list, it still takes several months to get through and get them housed.
After assessment by the council, applicants are assigned a category based on their vulnerability. In theory, those at the top of the list get homes much quicker. How to get top priority is a mystery. My co-workers and I often talk about how people, who having already been assessed as ‘high-needs’ by a human, as soon as they go through the checklist still come out as a low priority.
Once in the system, applicants get access to an online portal where there is a very limited selection of homes, sometimes as few as two or three flats. You can see how many people are bidding on them, usually it is in the thousands.
Often there are no flats that meet an applicant’s needs, or are only available for people over the age of 65, for example. It can take years, even for those who are assessed as being ‘high-need’. Many of the properties are advertised without pictures, and without an exact location. If you are lucky and there is a picture, it will just be of the outside.
Applicants who decline an offer of a flat risk being removed from the waiting list altogether as councils try to force people into homes and reduce the length of the queue.
It is challenging to see that it is a problem which has a solution that the government and local councils are not prepared to act on. That solution is to build more council housing.
Working in the housing sector can be incredibly stressful, emotionally and physically. Things listed in job adverts and the actual reality, are very different.
Funding for housing projects is decided by councils. Different organisations bid for the contracts to provide the service. Some of the organisations are charities, some are pretending to be charities. Staff turnover can be really high. In my last workplace I worked there for five months and that was considered a long time.
It is vital that housing workers get organised in the trade unions to fight for decent pay, and terms and conditions at work. I am a member of Unite the union that now has a policy to call on Labour councils to set needs budgets, including building the council homes we need.
People’s Budgets to meet housing need
The Socialist Party, as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), is helping to organise People’s Budget meetings across the country, to bring together trade unions, activists and community groups, including housing activists and tenants organisations, and draw up council budgets to meet the needs of communities.
We call on councillors to resist austerity by setting needs budgets in councils’ upcoming budget-setting meetings. Such a move could win the mass support from communities necessary to demand the money needed from the government.
Unite policy conference recently called on councils to set needs budgets. The Bakers’ union has recently disaffiliated from Labour and pledged to continue to fight politically for its members. Where existing councillors refuse to act in the interests of workers, as they have done during ten years of austerity, we call on the trade unions to put up candidates and join TUSC’s fighting stand in May’s council elections. This could be an important step towards building a new mass workers’ party, a vital step in achieving a socialist solution to the capitalist housing crisis.
A local council prepared to set a budget to meet the needs of workers could:
- Use council borrowing powers to fund capital spending to build secure, green council homes, while campaigning for the government to divert its subsidies for private developers to finance a mass programme of affordable public housing
- Use councils’ powers to register private landlords and set up council-run lettings agencies, as a means to tackle repair standards, high rents and overcrowding for private rented homes
- Restore full council tax benefits, funded from council reserves not council tax rises, and campaign for the government to reimburse councils that do so
- Give rough sleepers immediate, decent, and comfortable accommodation and support to transform their lives
- Act immediately on cladding and fire safety by carrying out remedial work and billing the government. They could compulsorily purchase the buildings of private and housing association landlords which do not also act immediately
- Pay council workers, and those employed in council-funded services, a minimum wage of £15 an hour and ensure trade union recognition