Margaret Mullane writes

Havering Fabians Meeting 24 April 2023

I can’t claim to have invented the above headline. That is a saying from my ward colleague, Phil, from Village Ward Dagenham. The language used around housing by the government and media can be confusing and often misleading. We need to reclaim and redefine the terms we use so it is clear what people need, versus what is really being offered.

I attended the Labour Party Conference this year in Liverpool. Andy Burnham, who I am a huge fan of, was discussing the “Levelling up Agenda”. Once again, within that conversation, the topic of “affordable rents” was raised. As I stated to the New Statesman at the time, if we are truly serious about levelling up, we need to take the term “affordable housing” off of the table. Having been a Councillor for thirteen years, and Jon Cruddas MP’s office manager for longer, I have watched this term used to justify locking out working people on lower wages from ever owning their own house.

Affordable housing is defined as housing at least 20% below local market value. It sounds good in theory, but since 2013 we have gone from it costing 6.1x the average salary to buy the average house to 8.5x the average salary in 2023 – and many earn well below that £33,000 median wage. It is almost impossible to save up for a sufficient deposit and equally difficult to secure a mortgage for that amount, and these are national averages – the issue is obviously even worse in London. It means that working class people have been completely priced out of the system. The current situation is massively in favour of developers and landowners, and people in their communities are looking over their fences to new properties that they or their family members will never be able to own. I strongly believe that it doesn’t have to be like this.

Let’s take Beam Park, which boasts “affordable“ shared ownership properties – something that really isn’t affordable, as you are purchasing a part of the property and paying a monthly rent too. I had a look at the website last week: a one bedroom from £290,000 – £305,000, and a three bedroom from £510,000 – £525,000. Who can afford properties like this?! We are in a cost-of-living crisis; patterns of work are changing and job security is increasingly difficult to find for many people. I know that many in the community are working two jobs to make ends meet. I am a great believer that you should work to live and not live to work, but people are having this choice taken away from them. I passionately feel that people’s wages should be sufficient to ensure a decent standard of living.

A big part of the puzzle to solve this housing crisis and the “unaffordable affordable housing” issue is through council housing. The people that don’t want council homes built rally against them on ideological grounds and will point to issues with the right to buy scheme. I believe that a change to the legislation around council housing that prohibits right to buy purchases for a twenty-year period would be sufficient to ensure we can provide a steady stream of affordable council housing, while ultimately allowing people to live in the houses that have become their homes for their whole lives if they choose.

I also feel that, in the spirit of truly levelling up, you devolve powers on right to buy as they have in Scotland and Wales to the local authority, who can work to provide what is needed in their local community. All sales from council housing should have 100% of the sale goes back to the council with a commitment that the money is spent to build new council homes. Finally, I believe that the right to buy discount should be maximised to 50% and capped at a maximum of £100,000, which would ensure that more council homes remain in public ownership.

The planning system in the country needs changing, and the Labour Party have said that if they win the next General Election, they intend to help first-time buyers onto the housing ladder and build more homes by reforming planning rules. What should this reform look like?

I have sat on a planning committee and have seen developers put forward their plans containing very little truly affordable housing. It’s very difficult under the current planning laws to question or reject plans to create more large and luxury homes when there is a serious deficit of rent controlled available council housing.

I watched a political programme a few weeks back and a journalist that represents young people made an alarming but not inaccurate claim. He said that the current political system provides nothing for young people in terms of housing that they can access. His take on the matter was that older voters vote in greater numbers, so the political class doesn’t worry about the offer for young people.

The rental sector also needs our attention. The high rent rates, the low quality of rental properties and rogue landlords who fail to carry out essential maintenance are all in urgent need of solutions. I believe that all people, whether renting privately, living in council housing or buying a property have a right to a decent home. We as a country have gone through austerity initiated by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, then we all went through Covid which deeply impacted communities around the country. Now we face wage stagnation as inflation continues to outstrip wage rises, which has led to a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed many families into poverty. The trade union movement is finally starting to gain some traction and secure reasonable pay for some workers, but many still struggle and their pleas for a fair wage fall on deaf ears.

In my years as a Councillor and office manager for Jon, I have had many in-depth discussions with council officers regarding the need for more council housing. I believe that one group turning against another is counterproductive to the housing revolution that is needed for this country at this time. I feel that class politics offers a better prism through which to view the need for council housing. The task of moving forward on housing falls to unelected individuals in various government agencies, often without the necessary attachment to any given area to really fight for its best interests. The “social housing offer” is supplied with a box ticked that it has been offered, but the waiting times are enormous and only reform will bring us closer to my goal of social housing available to all who need it.

As the prospective Parliamentary candidate for Dagenham and Rainham, I will be placing council housing at the centre place of my agenda, if successful going forward. The current housing conditions that some people are forced to live in within Dagenham and Rainham are plainly not acceptable. I feel we have taken many steps backwards in how the people of our country are housed. We need Labour politicians to make the case loudly and strongly for council housing. If the Becontree Estate was possible after World War II, think of what should be possible now. The cases I deal with would break people’s hearts to hear, but it doesn’t have to be like this.

Not everyone suffers directly from poor housing, but I’ve heard from friends, parents, grandparents and children all concerned about the costs and conditions their loved ones are dealing with. I do believe that the electorate understands this and will support us in saying goodbye to “unaffordable affordable housing” and building more social housing for the many in our community, and our country, who are in desperate need.

Margaret Mullane is Village Ward Barking and Dagenham Councillor and Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Dagenham and Rainham

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