The meeting was addressed by four main speakers: Michael Hall, chair of Leeds Tenants Federation; Paul Langford, Chief Housing Officer for Leeds City Council; Bill Payne, Chief Executive of Yorkshire Housing; and John Grayson, former Senior Tutor at Northern College. Such is the rising political importance of social housing shortages that Radio 4 even turned up to record the debates and some interviews for a forthcoming series on home ownership.
The meeting was organised as part of Leeds Tenants Federation's increasingly high profile campaign for the Right to Rent: which calls on the council to meet the demand for affordable housing in the city and support new social house for rent building. This is because of the growing affordable housing crisis in the city cause by astronomical house prices and the privatisation / demolition of social housing.
10,000 council homes will be lost under Right to Buiy by 2016 and between 5000 and 10,000 more council homes may be demolished over the next few years according to major regeneration plans for East and West Leeds. Leeds Tenants Federation is calling on the Council to end the demolition of council homes unless they can replace them. They are calling on the council to resolve that for every home lost, a new social rented property must be built.
Over three thousand residents have already signed the Right to Rent petition calling on Leeds City Council to make social rented housing a priority in its strategy for affordable homes in the city. The Right to Rent campaign is asking the council to:
• develop a land bank that can be transferred to housing associations (and ALMOs if they win new financial freedoms) at nil or low cost for the development of social rented homes
• and set a target of developing 1,500 social rented homes a year through planning agreements and by supporting housing association new build programmes
In their recent delegation to the Council, Leeds Tenants Federation’s Right to Rent campaign argued the need to replace the social rented housing that has been lost and that continues to be lost through clearance and sales. They point to the loss of almost 27,000 affordable rented homes since 1981 in Leeds and the likelihood that there will be only 5,000 social rented homes available to let by 2016.
The public meting began with a surprisingly strong speech tenants' chair, Michael Hall, a tenant in Burmantoffs (see full text of his speech below). He argued passionately for housing based on need not wealth or profit:
"It doesn’t make sense to leave housing to the private market. Because if you do that you get something like Leeds riverside – you get thousands of yuppie flats that no one’s allowed to live in – where at least half the apartments are kept empty on purpose, for investment purposes. If you treat social housing as a welfare safety net and you don’t build enough homes to go round, then you get scarcity and you get rationing and you get the situation where only the most desperate and vulnerable people can live there.
This government spends £13 billion a year on housing benefit – paying the high rents of the private rented sector and paying the high rents of housing associations. This government is willing to pay a huge housing benefit bill but they are not willing to put the money into subsidising social housing so that the rents don’t have to be so high and so that housing associations don’t have to pay private sector interest rates or pay high land costs. Just £1.5 billion of that £13 billion housing benefit bill would meet the housing targets of the Barker Report. If the money was switched into building affordable rented homes rather than propping up the private sector it would make all the difference."
Responding to Michael Hall was the Council's Paul Langford. Originally from Birmingham, Mr Langford spoke of his personal commitment to council and social housing as part of the market - his father had remained a council tenant. However, he want to explain that the housing market was very complex. Introducing 'heat diagrams' on a computer-generated presentation, he showed the large areas of the city in which housing was simply unaffordable in the city and trawled through comparative statistics on house prices over time. Having established what we all knew - that the housing market was insane - Mr Langford failed to explain 'why' this had happened or acknowledge Leeds City Council's own role in driving up house prices in the city centre and other areas through their own housing strategy that was demolishing council housing, building city centre flats and not taking on central government or the private sector. Langford cited the Council’s new ‘affordable housing strategy’, which aims to release as a first step 90 acres of council land for new housing to be built. “There is an untapped resource in the private sector market to help alleviate the affordability gap”. He alerted the conference to a joint event between Sheffield and Leeds councils in April on the issue.
The two speeches were followed by questions and discussion. A tenant from Kirklees asked the speakers what they expected the government to do about the affordability crisis. Leeds Tenants Federation stated that they expected no real change to government policy. Paul Langford was more diplomatic, saying that we’d have to wait for the Treasury’s Comprehensive Spending Review, due in the summer. However, he stated that the government was draining the council’s Housing Revenue Account by £30-40m a year. ‘If we had this money back, we could borrow against it and pay back, allowing us to do the repairs and new build.’
Veteran left winger, Norman Harding, praised the Tenants’ federation that he was normally so critical off: ‘I am pleasantly surprised, we are making progress’. He predicted the wholesale privatisation of Leeds ALMOs (Arms Length Management Organisations – they are not for profit companies wholly owned by the council) due to their deliberate financial squeeze. Andrew Coley from Little London Tenants and Residents Association who represent a council estate scheduled for ‘PFI regeneration’ over the next seven years and the potential loss of some 300 council homes, sarcastically asked Paul Langford, who had stated the PFI scheme would benefit ‘key workers’, “where will I, as a key worker living in the city centre, go when the bulldozers come into my estate?”.
Many more contributions from the floor were heard. A Swarcliffe resident demanded that the council ‘start buying up private properties on my estate and open them up as affordable social housing’. Another argued that what we were seeing was the return of 19th century capitalism, with a deregulated market for housing and the growth of exploitative landlords tied in with exploitative bosses. Many identified the corrupt nature of consultation processes. John McDermott, a convenor for Leeds Unison, praised Michael Hall’s speech and spoke passionately and rationally in favour of council housing:
“We know what the problem is in Leeds. There are not enough low cost homes for rent or sale; and there is a destructive drainage of the social rented sector going on by Right to Buy and demolitions linked to regeneration. The solution is therefore simple: either build more homes to match the loss, or stop the drainage in the first place. Local authorities have the power to suspend the Right to Buy, other councils have done it in Scotland and Wales. In high demand areas, RTB should be stopped. The real threat to council housing, however, is demolition. 3000 are planned under EASEL – in their place, we might get 25% affordable homes being built. That is what Leeds Tenants Federation needs to act on.”
In response, Michael Hall of LTF stated “we are opposed to RTB, we want the ALMOs to do well. We know that the council leaders have stated that Leeds City Council ‘will never take back the management’ of council housing. We are not as pessimistic’
Speech by Michael Hall, chair of Leeds Tenants Federation
Social housing has been getting a bad press in recent years. Watching TV or reading the newspapers you get the impression that social housing estates are dangerous places; that social housing tenants are mostly all criminals and neighbours from hell. Apparently they are all sponging off the social, taking drugs, stealing cars and they all wear ‘hoodies’.
This bad press for social housing has gone hand in hand with some bad decisions by Government. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government brought in the Right to Buy in 1980 and – while many tenants supported it – this policy creamed off the best council houses and left the poorest people living in the worst properties. The Conservatives also gave Housing Associations the lead role in providing new social housing. But they cut public spending and forced housing associations to borrow from the banks and building societies. So while councils were stopped from building more homes, housing association rents went through the roof.
Under the Labour government we’ve seen the Decent Homes programme and the Major Repairs Allowance but no real improvements for social housing. This government is clear that it supports home ownership and people who rent should be encouraged to buy. They see social housing as a welfare safety-net. They support social housing but only for people who are down on their luck.
It wasn’t always like this – as many of you remember. Council housing was created after the First World War partly as a result of pressure from tenants organisations and after the Second World War there was a mass building programme for council housing. Council housing was there for all classes and people from all walks of life. You might have a doctor living next door to a bus driver and the early council houses were top quality and built to the best design.
In other European countries, social housing is still like that. On the continent, they don’t have a fixation about owning your own home. In countries like Sweden and Denmark their social housing sector has been so strongly supported by the state that it can compete on its own terms with the private sector and no longer needs subsidy. There is no stigma about social renting abroad and tenants are not seen as second-class citizens.
In this country it’s different. Late last year, a think tank called the Smith Institute published a report into the Future of Social Housing. They said that social housing was to blame for poverty and for keeping people in welfare dependency. The report recommended the scrapping of the secure tenancy and the ending of a home for life. This report said that if you got a home with the council or a housing association, it should just be for a short while until you could afford to go private. So if you’re a tenant who can afford to rent in the private sector or if you can afford a deposit for a mortgage – the Smith Institute would give you a notice to quit and tell you to get on your bike and get out of social housing.
Now we believe that countries like Sweden have got it right. We believe that it is a sensible public policy to invest in building affordable rented homes that are available to all. It is a sensible policy because housing – like health and like education – is a basic need that everyone shares. A home is also the most expensive basic need and any sensible society would make sure that it pooled its resources so that homes were affordable and everyone had somewhere to live. The more that a society invests in affordable rented housing the cheaper it gets to provide and the less subsidy it needs. That’s because the rents from older properties can be pooled to subsidise the rents of new properties. An investment in social housing drives down rents in the private sector and it drives down the price of buying homes. So over the long term it pays back all the money invested in it.
It doesn’t make sense to leave housing to the private market. Because if you do that you get something like Leeds riverside – you get thousands of yuppie flats that no one’s allowed to live in – where at least half the apartments are kept empty on purpose, for investment purposes. If you treat social housing as a welfare safety net and you don’t build enough homes to go round, then you get scarcity and you get rationing and you get the situation where only the most desperate and vulnerable people can live there.
This government spends £13 billion a year on housing benefit – paying the high rents of the private rented sector and paying the high rents of housing associations. This government is willing to pay a huge housing benefit bill but they are not willing to put the money into subsidising social housing so that the rents don’t have to be so high and so that housing associations don’t have to pay private sector interest rates or pay high land costs. Just £1.5 billion of that £13 billion housing benefit bill would meet the housing targets of the Barker Report. If the money was switched into building affordable rented homes rather than propping up the private sector it would make all the difference.
We don’t kid ourselves that is going to happen while central government policy continues to favour home ownership at the expense of affordable rented housing. But Leeds City Council has the opportunity to launch a house-building programme. The Council has agreed an affordable housing plan and it intends to set up a partnership company to bank up all council land sites so that they can be used to build homes. Most of these vacant land sites have been created by demolishing council housing. Even though we are facing a housing crisis, Leeds is continuing to demolish council homes. Whole neighbourhoods in the east of Leeds are being knocked down as we speak. Thousands more council homes are facing the bulldozer. What is going to replace them? That is the question facing Leeds City Council. And the answer we should be giving to our council leaders is – more social rented housing! For every council home demolished – Leeds council must ensure that another social rented home is built.
We believe in mixed communities. It was always a mistake to build vast estates of the same houses, all looking the same, all the same house type and the same tenure. People should not have to move out of their neighbourhood if their family grows in size or if they want to buy rather than rent. So it makes sense – when we build – to build mixed communities of homes to rent, and homes to buy, and homes to buy and rent. But when you hear people talk of mixed communities nowadays what they seem to mean is knocking down council houses and only building homes to buy. And that cannot continue. No one knows exactly how many social rented homes we need in this city. All we know is that there is a massive unmet demand. We know too that we need at least 3,200 new affordable homes to be built each year in Leeds to meet that demand. And we know sadly that we can never reach that target with the resources we have. So we need Leeds City Council to set targets. We are confident that the council is committed to doing what it can to create more affordable housing. But they must make a commitment to build more social rented housing. They must stop the mass demolition of council homes and they must launch a new social rented house-building programme.
Social housing is a great thing. We need more of it. We want social housing to be available to everyone no matter what your needs or your abilities. Social housing should be a main stream choice, up there alongside home ownership as an option for everyone. There is nothing wrong with Social Housing. The stigma, the lack of investment, the concentrations of poverty have all been created by Central Government policy. We can do something about that in Leeds. We can call on our Council to build social rented homes alongside homes to buy or shared ownership. We can call on our Council to end the demolition of council homes without replacing them. We call on the Council to resolve that for each council house lost, a new social rented home is built in its place
My message is clear. I am proud to be a tenant. I don’t want to be an owner-occupier. That doesn’t make me a second-class citizen or a welfare sponger. As social housing tenants we should be proud of ourselves because social housing is a great thing, a good idea and a sound social policy. The right to buy was yesterday’s news. Today we want the Right to Rent.