Proposal for a Popular Housing Review

This is an extremely speculative attempt to outline, roughly, what a Labour housing review that drew on those strands in Corbynism that are potentially useful, radical and open to popular experience could look like. It is mostly speculative and theoretical (though theory in response to a set of practical experiences that demand a different sort of political practice) but if anyone wanted to commission me to organise such a review….

One of the most promising things about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign was his willingness to listen to the concerns of ordinary people and, to a degree, accept the legitimacy of popular needs and demands against the dominant political consensus. It is, therefore, disappointing to see that the shadow housing minister, John Healey, has launched the “independent” Redfern Review into the decline in home ownership. The Redfern Review will be led by Pete Redfern, the chief executive of Taylor Wimpey. Redfern will be advised by “a team of experts on housing and economics”: Dame Kate Barker, former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member, Terrie Alafat CBE, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, and former Director of Housing at the Department for Communities and Local Government, Ian Mulheirn, Director of Consulting at Oxford Economics and former Director of the Social Market Foundation and Andy Gray, former Managing Director of Mortgages at Barclays and ex-deputy chair of the Council of Mortgage Lenders. What is notable from this group of experts is that none of them have suffered from the housing crisis, indeed, Redfern as chief executive of one of Britain’s biggest developers has acquired his expertise from profiting from and exacerbating the housing crisis.

In the Redfern Review, as in most policy reviews expertise is imagined as being acquired through holding positions of power. This expertise, moreover, is to be deployed to solve a circumscribed set of problems within a limited, given framework, in the Redfern Review the housing crisis is reduced to one of its aspects, the decline in home ownership. The goals, diagnosis and scope of the review and the meaning of expertise are all entirely given by the dominant political consensus and here the Redfern Review has considerable parallels and overlaps with the Lyons Review, commissioned by Labour before the 2015 election, with a different but essentially interchangeable panel of experts.

There is a different source of expertise, one which is not founded upon knowledge acquired in benefiting from the housing crisis. This expertise, unlike the technocratic expertise of the Redfern Review, is able both to integrate local, often extremely technical details and experiences with a wider, radical sense of how housing should be. This expertise grasps the housing crisis both in its totality and in the extremely differentiated and differentiating ways in which it works itself out in practice. The expertise able to accomplish this, is the expertise of those directly effected by and struggling against the current state of housing in the UK. This is not, however, a question of the experience and opinions of stereotypical young, white, middle-class “do-gooding” activists. Firstly, even members of this group are likely to be struggling with their own housing situations, particularly in London and the South-East. Secondly, to struggle against the housing crisis is not predominantly to struggle against it through the given political methods whether lobbying, protest marches or even more antagonistic means like protest occupations, though these may all prove useful. Struggling against the housing crisis, instead, is to use knowledge, resilience and bravery to, at the very least, limit how far one is exploited by a landlord to what is legal, to, at the most, merely survive. For many surviving the housing crisis requires considerable knowledge both of official laws and policies and of the unofficial, often legally questionable, to say the very least, ways in which both landlords and councils, benefit offices and other parts of the state operate. All of this is authentic expertise and it is expertise that has been acquired through surviving the housing crisis rather than profiting from it. This expertise also involves a different knitting together of theory and practice from those who have the power to influence policy through in conventional ways, whether that is through being able to manipulate state channels or commanding capital (or, most commonly, both). This expertise, however, is largely ignored, to a large extent because the bearers of it are disproportionately women, especially mothers, from BME backgrounds, working class, young, with irregular immigration status and may be from the official perspective inarticulate or may not speak English as a first language. It is further ignored because it often circulates through hidden or unofficial channels though in some cases it is embedded and shareable in housing groups like HASL.

A popular housing review rooted in the expertise that huge numbers of people have had to acquire to survive the crisis or at least partially ameliorate its effects would look very different to the Redfern or Lyons Reviews. It would open up a whole new set of points where the housing crisis takes place and be able to address their intersections. A popular housing review would also be as independent from party politics as the Redfern Review but in a radical rather than technocratic way. Even in terms of addressing the particular focus of the Redfern Review, popular expertise would be telling in its ability to contextualise the question of declining home ownership and the problems resulting from it within a wider housing landscape in which the costs and insecurity of private renting and the lack of availability of and access to council housing mean that buying a house is the only way to escape housing insecurity, exploitation and preposterous costs. This approach situates the problem which the Redfern Review is intended to address in a context which goes beyond the concern with the housing crisis because now “it does not limit itself to the working class but has affected the petty bourgeoisie also” and allows for a long-term perspective which suggests a crisis deeper, longer and wider than its immediate manifestations insofar as they concern a particular social segment.

A popular housing crisis would raise two sets of questions for Corbyn and Labour, most obviously, these would concern the national programme for 2020 and the terms on which government policy is to be opposed, but it would also question what Labour councils do (it is often forgotten, or, deliberately passed over, that Labour are in power in large parts of the country). The questions that might be generated by a popular housing review would include estate demolitions, both the necessity of opposing them whether mandated by central or local government and generating proposals for refurbishing estates without displacing tenants, building more council houses, and separating this demand from the demand to build more houses. A popular housing review would allow demands to be made in themselves, articulating popular needs, rather than seeing these needs only appear when subordinated to the interests of the state and capital such as with the demand to “build more homes” with no attention to tenure or use, which deploys the struggles of those affected by the housing crisis to “liberate” private developers whether through loosening planning laws, including those mandating “affordable” homes or through state subsidies. These are questions for Labour councils as much as for national governments.

A second group of questions would surround private renting, and again a popular housing review would transform the technocratic approach to questions which both integrates demands and needs in a pre-existing framework whilst neglecting the way in which individual policies intersect with the wider situation whether this is other housing policies, other government policies or the wider social reality of oppression. Technocratic policy making addresses an uncritically examined situation, which fails to take account either of the totality of the situation and its differentiation, particularly through class, race and gender. A popular housing review would also reverse the way in which questions are posed. For example, whilst it is, at a stretch, imaginable that the standard policy consultation form could suggest rent controls but only in such a way that the perspective of landlords, especially when expressed through abstractions like the “quality of the housing stock”, is integrated and foregrounded alongside technocratic debates about what form of rent control best reconciles opposing interests. A popular housing review could begin by determining what is an acceptable level of rent and work from there. Questions around secure tenancies, especially an end to retaliatory evictions would also be posed from the perspective of tenants and this may reveal, for example, the risk of retaliatory evictions, which landlords have worked hard to downplay, significantly damages the housing stock by discouraging or even completely preventing tenants from complaining about repairs. More generally, tenants have their own experience (as distinct from landlords and local councils) of the effectiveness of existing provisions, especially through environmental health, in resolving problems over the condition of housing. All existing policies should be tested for usefulness against the expertise and experience of those struggling with housing.

As with council housing, there are also a set of questions and policies being carried out by Labour local councils which must be scrutinised in the light of their effects on those struggling against the housing crisis, perhaps more than anywhere else this evaluation requires sensitivity to the extremely varied effects of the housing crisis and how these effects are differentiated by income but even more significantly race, gender and immigration status. It is also clear that some of the more middle class parts of the housing movement are reluctant to integrate the concerns of those outside the white, middle class, “generation rent” newly affected by the housing crisis into their analysis of and organising around private renting.

The limitations of both technocratic policy making and the concerns of the white, middle-class section of the housing movement, which often takes its campaigning from what is imagined as “politically realistic” include the failure to foreground critique of the Right to Rent policy (which demands landlords check the immigration status of tenants before allowing them to rent a home) and to understand the severity of the effects of this racist policy in its intersection with domestic violence– a survivor fleeing their home may well be unable to take the necessary documentation that they will now need to able to rent a home with them. There are also a set of questions, again surrounding how our demands are instrumentalised by the state and capital, around how demanding improved standards of housing can be twisted into anti-immigrant policies whether through some of the implications of landlord licensing or through local councils using funding for dealing with rogue landlords on immigration raids. In certain ways these policies and their impacts are technical issues but their impact on people’s lives are profound but policy never foregrounds the experiences of those whose ability to survive is compromised by them. A popular housing review, instead of starting with abstractions like the quality of housing stock or the mixture of common sense and individualising caricature, for example in the figure of the “rogue landlord” that calls out for bureaucratic intervention, would begin with the experiences of the most affected by the crisis and their knowledge of what these policies mean.

Rather than stabilising the housing crisis through figures like the “rogue landlord”, which suggest that problems which are in fact systematic can be managed through the correct policy intervention, engaging with the experiences of those most affected by the housing crisis opens up both the totality of the crisis and its extremely differentiated (and differentiating) effects. Instead of blaming the crisis on rogue landlords, the experience of tenants makes clear that all private renting is, by its nature, exploitative. On the systematic level private renting in exploitative but the effects of exploitation are differentiated, for some the exploitation is just about manageable, for others, even with the various ameliorations suggested by parts of the housing movement or the centre left, private renting will never not be incredibly unsuitable and harmful, this is particularly the case for families. There is huge technical expertise, resilience and cunning (all of these acquired from struggle) from people forced to negotiate a landscape of lack of council housing and local council gatekeeping practices which deny them access to housing to which they should be entitled. Again, politically, this barely registers despite the misery it produces but local housing groups like HASL, whose members are affected, have done substantial and important work into the effects of the Localism Act and the powers that it has given councils to use. For Labour there are two sets of questions, the first, longer-term, concern national legislation and the duties national government should impose on councils, the second, which could be addressed easily and would make a huge difference to large numbers of people’s lives concern the behaviour of Labour councils now, and their sometimes complicity in, sometimes actual committing of acts of violence against vulnerable people in need of housing.

A further area of questions around policy’s focus on abstractions or the interests of a few people at the expense of popular needs, which also forces people into the private rented sector, concern squatting. Squatters again because having and sharing this is a necessity in order to have housing have their own considerable expertise and legal and technical knowledge.

There are, therefore, a whole set of vital areas of housing policy which the Redfern Review will ignore. Those outlined above are, necessarily partial as they grounded in my own housing problems, the housing struggles which I have been involved in and conversations with others struggling against the crisis, they are, therefore, London, perhaps even, Southwark and Lambethcentric, and unevenly focused on private renting but a genuinely popular housing review would engage with all of those struggling against the housing crisis, across tenures and across the country. The point of a popular housing review would be to centre policy on the needs, experience and expertise of those struggling with their housing, explore its intersections with other parts of life and other struggles. This sort of review would also expand what is held to constitute housing policy by addressing its intersections with other parts of life and expand what it is necessary to critique or resist. A popular housing review would not only address Labour policy for the 2020 election but also use popular needs and expertise to explore and correct the behaviour of Labour where it is already in power in local government.

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