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The Housing Bill has got to be killed

We must restore decent, affordable council housing to the mainstream, return housing associations to their social purpose, control rents and demand secure homes for all, says GLYN ROBBINS


This week my union, Unite, described the Housing Bill as “the government’s ‘house of cards’” — legislation that was shaky from the start and is now collapsing.

The government has suffered a succession of defeats in the House of Lords. Peers have attacked key planks of what the Tories hoped would be a decisive shift in housing policy.

Dodgy Dave and co wanted to make tenants pay for the housing crisis and let their property developer friends make even more profit from the mess they created.

So far the Lords have voted in favour of amendments that will dilute plans for means-testing tenants’ rents (so-called “pay to stay” — in reality a tenant tax), ending secure tenancies and allowing buyers of “starter homes” to trouser big discounts.

The amendments also call for local councils to have discretion over implementing some of the measures and for Parliament to be consulted again before they do so.

There are two more days for debates about the Bill in the Lords and it’s quite possible the government will suffer more setbacks. Next Wednesday the battered Bill will return to the House of Commons where MPs will consider the amendments. There will then ensue a period of parliamentary “ping-pong” as the government negotiates with peers in an effort to get the legislation passed before the end of this parliamentary session on May 18. The clock is ticking for one of the Tories’ flagship policies, which is now holed beneath the surface.

What’s happening inside Parliament is the result of pressure from outside. A vibrant grassroots movement has formed Kill the Housing Bill, a broad campaign involving tenants, trade unionists, politicians, housing activists and the support of the Morning Star.

Big public meetings and small estate meetings, leafleting and street stalls, lobbying the Lords and a demonstration of 10,000 people on March 13 have all raised awareness of an attack on local communities the government wanted to carry out by stealth. As the word spreads, anger and resistance grow.

While the victories in the Lords are very welcome, it’s far too early to celebrate. The promise of concessions could demobilise some opposition. But the Bill seeks to dismantle some of the fundamental principles of non-market housing in Britain and return to the old days of unchecked profiteering. The Bill is irredeemable. The only way to improve it is to kill it.

Some of the so-far unamended elements of the Bill could change the role of housing associations (HAs — a particular concern for members of my union branch). For some years HAs, particularly the bigger ones, have been operating in a way that increasingly resembles private developers. Some have been quite explicit that they want to get out of the social housing “business.” The Housing Bill will give HAs a push in that direction, leading to mega-mergers, job losses and even fewer homes that are genuinely affordable to people on low and medium incomes.

The Housing Bill will still make the housing crisis worse. It will reduce the amount of council and social housing and do nothing significant to improve the situation for millions of private renters facing the constant threat of rent hikes and eviction.

But housing isn’t the only area where the government is in a mess. This week it already had to climb down on important parts of the (anti) Trade Union Bill. Next week it faces further strike action from junior doctors, and its plans to turn all schools into academies are already unravelling. 

All that, plus poor election results on May 5 and the EU referendum fratricide add up to a cocktail of crisis that could bury the Housing Bill.

Now’s the time to step up the campaign — particularly outside London and in other places it hasn’t yet reached, including Tory boroughs. New interest is growing in Croydon, Maidstone, Nottingham, Leicester, Leeds, Bristol and Newcastle. This Saturday John Healey MP, shadow cabinet member for housing, is addressing a meeting against the Bill in Sheffield.

The national Kill the Bill campaign has called for all supporters and affiliates to build a protest and lobby of MPs at Parliament on May 11, as the Bill enters its last stages.
Here’s what you can do:

- Organise a delegation from your area to join the lobby
- Contact your MP to arrange a meeting on May 11
- Contact union-sponsored MPs and alert them to May 11
- Hold a ‘Kill the Bill’ meeting in your area
- Get involved in the national campaign.

Working-class people can’t rely on lords and ladies to defend our interests. Peers may succeed in smoothing some of the Bill’s harder edges, but unless we kill it, the overall shape will remain. The consequences for those in housing need, struggling to keep a roof over their heads, or find one for their children could be disastrous.

We need a different vision for housing, away from the tyranny of the market and the property vultures. We must restore decent, affordable, energy-efficient council housing to the mainstream, return housing associations to their social purpose, control rents in the private sector and demand secure homes for all.

A public meeting takes place on Saturday April 23, 1pm Quaker Meeting House, 10 St James Street, Sheffield, S1 2EW. A national protest and lobby of MPs at Parliament is happening on Wednesday May 11 from 12 noon.

 

Glyn Robbins is a Unite LE11111 member.

This article also appears in the Morning Star

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