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Govt’s house of cards

Its housing policies are tumbling down
Hajera Blagg, Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

First it was cuts to tax credits, then the raid on disability benefits – and now measures in the Housing Bill are facing defeat. The government’s proposed policies, all taking aim at those who are most vulnerable, are tumbling down like a house of cards.


Last week, the House of Lords passed amendments seeking to dismantle the worst of the Housing and Planning Bill, which if made into law in its current state, will destroy affordable housing as we know it and exacerbate the housing crisis to the point of no return.


A coalition of peers defeated a measure in the Bill that would allow first time buyers under 40 to purchase houses valued up to £450,000 in London and £250,000 outside the capital with a 20 per cent discount.


The government initially proposed that the discount would expire after five years – meaning that these buyers, the vast majority of whom will be already wealthy, can keep the discount and sell their home at full-market rate afterwards.


Critics have said that this measure will decimate available housing and so make housing more unaffordable than ever, all while enabling many wealthy homeowners to cash in on a discount of more than £100,000 each. This measure alone would cost the taxpayer more than £4bn.


Now, ministers have agreed that those who buy starter homes can only keep the discount if they sell their home after 20 years.


Another measure in the Bill would force councils to sell off their high value homes to fund an extension of right-to-buy to those living in housing associations. Councils would then be forced to hand over the vast majority of the proceeds to central government. But now, a Lords amendment would require Parliament to approve any government raid of these proceeds.


Iniquitous proposal

Perhaps the most iniquitous proposal in the Bill is “Pay to Stay”, which forces council tenants earning more than £30,000 a year (£40,000 a year in London), to pay the local private sector rent rate – or else be kicked out of their homes.


But the Lords hit back at the measure with a set of amendments including one that would allow councils to voluntarily opt-in to “Pay to Stay”.


Independent crossbencher Lord Best spoke after the amendment was passed 240 to 176, calling the original proposal ‘vindictive’.


“The extra payment by the tenant is not rent since it does not relate to the property and the landlord does not receive it,” he said.


“It is a payment that goes to the exchequer based on one’s income and that is normally called a tax.


“I don’t believe anyone wants vindictively to tax successful council tenants just for the sake of it,” Lord Best added.


“In the light of the amendment we have just passed, if accepted by the other place councils will be able to opt out of this duty to collect this housing tax for the exchequer – my guess is that unless … local authorities can keep the monies they raise and apply them to housing purposes, virtually all councils will opt out, if this amendment survives.”


These aren’t the only measures in the Bill that the Lords have attacked – a full list can be found here.


But MPs may reject the Lords’ amendments when the Bill returns to the House of Commons next Monday (April 25).


Unite member Glyn Robbins manages a small council estate in Islington, north London and is part of the Unite housing workers’ branch – he’s been working in the housing sector for 25 years and knows first-hand the destruction that the housing crisis has wrought.


“The Housing Bill is only the latest in a culmination of policies that have created the housing crisis,” he explained. “But we should be under no illusion that this Bill will have the net effect of making the crisis much, much worse.


“Over the years I’ve been in the sector, I’ve seen the relentless reduction in genuinely affordable housing happening in tandem with ever-increasing demand,” he explained. “Now, you see children in their early and mid-twenties continuing to live with their parents and you see people spending 50 per cent or more of their income solely on rent – this is the new norm.”


“A problem that’s less tangible is the destruction of cohesive communities,” Robbins noted. “Families who’ve lived for generations in one estate or one area are being pushed out. The transience that’s become the hallmark of the private rented sector means that sense of community is now becoming a thing of the past.”


Robbins added that the worsening housing crisis is increasingly becoming a workplace issue for those employed in the housing sector.


“Not only are members in the housing sector being affected in their private lives – they’re taking a massive hit at work as well. We’re seeing more and more job losses, pay cuts and de-recognition of unions as well.”


He noted that housing associations have slowly evolved from their original purpose as charities to becoming much more like businesses.


“And measures in the Housing Bill will only further accelerate this transformation,” he added.


‘Destruction of affordable homes’

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner called the government’s Housing Bill “the latest chapter in the story of the destruction of affordable and social homes in this country.


“We already have a housing crisis of epic proportions — instead of solving this issue with a mass council house building programme, caps on rent and regulations on rip-off landlords, the Bill will reduce the housing stock even more and the only ones who will benefit, yet again, are those who are already wealthy,” he said.


“Their so-called ‘starter homes’ may sound like homes that give young people an opportunity to get on the housing ladder,” Turner added.


“But when the price tag for a supposedly ‘affordable’ home can be nearly half a million pounds in London, and when you can sell off the house at full market rent only five years later, we know exactly what ‘starter homes’ are — they’re simply a massive, taxpayer funded discount for a small number of people who are able to take advantage of the property market.


“What it is not is a solution to the millions of people who need a safe, secure home they can genuinely afford.”


“Extending the right-to-buy to housing associations and forcing councils to flog off their most valuable properties and hand the proceeds to central government, will worsen the housing crisis by degrees by destroying our already dwindling housing stock,” he went on to say.


“It’s moreover an aggressive assertion of central government’s powers – a bit rich coming from a government that harps on and on about localism.


Condemning the so-called ‘Pay to Stay’ measure, Turner said it was “designed to force people in social housing to choose between taking extra hours, a better job or a pay rise and having to pay extra rent for their home; choices that residents in other housing sectors rightly do not have to make.”


“It will simply push tenants into the Wild West that is the private rented sector – which the government has shown zero interest in properly regulating, instead voting against an amendment that would have ensured all landlords provided homes suitable for human habitation,” he argued. “That is how much this government cares about delivering proper homes.


“The House of Lords recently passing amendments to the Bill shows the level of opposition that the Bill is now facing, and it’s something that we at Unite very much welcome. But amendments aren’t enough — we oppose the Bill in its entirety and urge everyone to join us in the fight against it.


Robbins agreed and highlighted how a growing campaign against the Housing Bill is having a very real impact.


“We’ve campaigned very hard on this issue and what’s happening in the Lords now shows that it’s working,” he said.


“In every way it’s been a grassroots movement,” he added. “Being a bottom-up movement – with tenants, housing workers, and entire communities coming together – is its greatest strength.


“But we need more resources and more support,” Robbins noted. “We’re on the brink of winning – we can’t stop now.”


He urged everyone to get involved in the Kill the Housing Bill campaign, which is set to host a mass demonstration and lobby outside of Parliament on May 11. Find out more here.


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