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Unfinished business

John Healey, Shadow Housing Minister, imageReturning as Shadow Housing Minister after five years brings mixed feelings for me. On the one hand, I’m proud and pleased that housing is now a clear priority for Labour – given a full place at the shadow cabinet table for the first time ever, and a full shadow ministerial team.

But on the other, it is painfully clear to me that as a country we are much further away from providing enough decent and affordable homes to rent and buy than we were when I last did this job.

Affordable housing imageMinisters talk about building more houses and helping people become homeowners. But this hides the truth that their housing record is five years of failure on every front.

Homeownership has fallen every year since 2010 and is now at the lowest rate in a generation. Ministers have overseen the lowest number of homes built under any Government since Lloyd George in the 1920s and the lowest number of genuinely affordable homes for two decades. Homelessness is rising and private rents have soared.

Fixing the problem

Unfortunately, the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill which is currently being debated in Parliament isn’t up to the job of fixing this failure – and in some areas will make the problem much worse.

At prices up to £450,000, the new “starter homes” don’t do nearly enough to help those struggling to buy and will be totally out of reach for most young people and families on ordinary incomes. At average deposit and lending ratios, these starter homes could require an income of over £100,000 – a distant prospect for most aspiring owners.

With a total of 32 new housing and planning powers for the centre, this legislation signals the end of localism. Councils need more powers and freedoms to encourage new homes of all types in their area but this Bill makes their jobs harder.

Affordable housing

The Private Rented Sector needs reform. A more stable, better quality rented sector is in everyone’s interest but most landlords, tenants and agents will find this Bill does nothing for them. Most damaging of all, the Housing and Planning Bill sounds the death knell for our ability to build the affordable homes to rent and buy that are needed.

The forced sell-off of council homes to fund Right to Buy discounts for housing associations will mean affordable homes currently set aside for local people will be sold on to speculators and buy-to-let landlords, with no prospect or plan for replacement like for like in those areas.

While housing associations may build more homes as they sell under Right to Buy, many will increasingly build for open market sale and rent – a third say they will no longer build any affordable homes.

And as ministers use new powers through the planning system to impose starter home obligations on developers, the system that has provided nearly 250,000 genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy in the last decade will be undermined. All told, Shelter predicts the bill will lead to the loss of 180,000 affordable homes over the next five years.

Taking action

The truth is that if we’re to get to grips with the housing crisis in this country we need more new homes of all types – including affordable homes. There has only been one year since the end of mass affordable housebuilding that we’ve managed to build more than 200,000 homes, never mind the roughly 250,000 that independent experts now think we need.

The Government’s plans for affordable housing may be penny wise, but they’re pound foolish. As I showed in work done with PwC and published in September, a public housebuilding programme would pay for itself in lower housing benefit payments alone, as families on low income would have an alternative to the more expensive private rented sector. Good for tenants and good for taxpayers too.

Just as with affordable housing, I’m determined to expose where this Government is failing on homeownership too. As one of my first acts in the job I appointed Pete Redfern, the Chief Executive of Taylor Wimpey, to lead a review into the decline of homeownership to report next summer.

It is intolerable that owning a home is becoming the preserve of those with high incomes, or whose families are able to pay for them. Between 1997 and 2010, the number of homeowners increased by a million. I want the next Labour Government to be as successful again.

I hope over the coming months and years to be able to work with housing professionals on these and other parts of the housing brief, just as I did before as a Minister. This may be an old job for me, but there are plenty of new challenges.

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