Tower Hamlets parliamentary candidates & their housing policy

Last week Tower Hamlets Federation of Tenant and Resident Associations held a hustings dedicated to one of the most pressing issues in the borough: housing.

Candidates from Labour (Rushanara Ali), Conservative (Matt Smith), Lib Dems (Teena Lashmore), Greens (Alistair Polson) and TUSC (Glyn Robbins) all graced the stage to answer questions from a passionate and informed audience.

Frankly their personal views matter little given the area is a Labour safe seat and policy is formed not by our local MPs, but by the upper echelons of the party, their advisers and of course those able to get close enough to lobby them.

However, we can set the level of debate for the area, and hope the message is passed on. If the message is similar in constituencies across London it may eventually have a ripple-like effect.

Likewise if smaller more ‘radical’ parties were to get a significantly higher than expected number of votes, that too could encourage local MPs to push for more considered and people-focused policy.

So what are the party’s policies?

Labour

Private renters

  • Three-year tenancies up from six-months.
  • An end to letting agent fees.
  • Limit rent rises during the three-year contract to inflation.
  • Create national register of landlords.

House building and buying

  • Build 200,000 homes a year by 2020. Although it appears they will rely on the market to build them. It’s not clear who will be able to afford them.
  • They will also allow local authorities to confiscate land from speculators where planning permission has been granted – increasing its value – but failing to build on it.
  • Allow local authorities to charge higher council tax rates on empty homes.
  • Ensure new-builds are advertised for sale in the UK before they are overseas. A hefty tax on foreign investors might be more effective.
  • Allow local authorities to give priority to first time buyers on new build purchases.
  • Reinvest Help-to-Buy ISA (coalition policy to help first time buyers saving for a deposit) cost in new housing.
  • Support small house builders to increase competition with big developers accused of keeping cost of public sector house building artificially high.
  • They also promise a series of new towns and garden cities.

Conservative

The Conservative manifesto on housing is frankly a joke. It focuses purely on subsidising home ownership and making it easier for builders to build, which may not sound like a bad idea, but it is when it doesn’t meet local housing need. And there is absolutely nothing for renters, who cannot afford to buy, whether their in the private, state or third sectors.

In fact they cut the ability for local authorities to implement landlord licensing schemes, which can be used to improve conditions and ban rogue landlords, to 20% of their jurisdiction at the end of this parliament (April 2015), and cut money available to build social housing by 65% at the beginning (in 2010).

  • Continue with Help-to-Buy where the taxpayer acts as guarantor for people wanting to buy a new home, but without a deposit. Critics argue it pushes up house prices.
  • Introduce right-to-buy to housing association tenants. This will cost the taxpayer billions to cover the huge discounts tenants offered and significantly deplete the stock of affordable housing available for rent.
  • Fund a 20% discount for 100,000 first-time buyers under the age of 40. Likely cost in excess of £2bn. Like right-to-buy, this is a great policy if you are one of the beneficiaries, but ignores the millions who will never be able to afford a home of their own.
  • Improve the economy and keep mortgage rates low so that builders build and home-buyers buy. This ambiguous policy relies on hope rather than any definitive action by politicians. Furthermore, it’s not in the interests of builders to build too many homes as their value reduces along with their profits. Or as we’re seeing, many focus on luxury developments for the rich, who often don’t even live here, but buy property as an investment vehicle, which only worsens the housing crisis.
  • The Tories have also mooted scrapping the need to build affordable housing for smaller developments.
  • Give individuals the right-to-build forcing local authorities to facilitate the process.

Lib Dems

For Private Renters

  • Improve protections against rogue landlords and bring in ‘multi-year tenancies’ index linked to inflation to limit rent rises. Good but vague.
  • Ban letting agent fees by 2016 if they don’t come down by themselves. Call me cynical, but how or why would they come down by themselves?
  • Extend use of Rent Repayment Orders (rent refunds) where properties fall short of minimum legal standards or carried out court ordered improvements. Excellent idea.
  • Tenant deposit loans for first-time renters.
  • Ban landlords from letting properties that tenants cannot reasonably afford to heat. Not clear how that is measured, for example, tenant’s income versus annual cost? This issue could be dealt with through the implementation of a landlord licensing scheme, which is currently left to local authorities to implement, although the coalition government last month limited new schemes to 20% of the borough.

House building and buying

  • Build 300,000 homes a year including ten new garden cities.
  • Rent-to-own scheme, where rents earns a stake in the property.
  • Cut council tax by £100/year if you insulate your home. Not clear if you get the discount if your home is already insulated, or if private renters will benefit too.
  • Give local authorities new powers to push forward housebuilding on state owned land.
  • State to fund housebuilding for sale and rent where markets fail.
  • Force councils to identify and lease land for self-build projects at affordable rates.
  • Allow local authorities to: prevent investors leaving new-builds unoccupied, double council tax on second homes, and pilot new housing regulations that prioritise local residents in obtaining new builds.
  • Allow local authorities to borrow to build and devolve right-to-buy to them.
  • Encourage councils and housing associations to build properties for private sale to subsidise affordable home building: HAs already are and we’re seeing a loss of social housing not an increase.

Greens

Private Renting

  • Introduce five-year fixed tenancy schemes.
  • Cap annual rent increases to inflation.
  • Introduce a national mandatory licensing scheme for private landlords.
  • Bring housing benefit cap in line with local average market rates.
  • Review shared accommodation rate to reflect actual cost if rent.

House building and buying

  • Giving Bank of England powers to limit size of mortgages in terms of loan-to-value and income to help limit house price increases and over-borrowing.
  • Develop housing evenly across country to reduce pressure on London and SE. Doesn’t state if that means build more housing in London or less. The latter would increase house prices.
  • Make buy-to-let less attractive by removing tax incentives: mortgage interest as an expense and reforming wear-and-tear allowance.
  • Increase council tax for expensive and empty homes.
  • Scrap Help-to-Buy saving £600m.
  • Bring 700,000 homes back into use, using Empty Property Use Orders.
  • Gradually phase out stamp duty and replace with a land tax.
  • Reduce VAT on repair and renovation work from 20% to 5% to encourage bringing old properties back into use.
  • Introduce right-to-rent where homeowners have the right to rent back their home if they’re struggling to pay their mortgage.
  • Break up the big builder cartels and diversify the house building industry so that more homes are built by small and medium-sized builders and community led initiatives.

Social housing

  • Provide 500,000 social homes for rent by increasing the social housing budget, and remove borrowing caps on local councils.
  • End mass council house sales and discounted right-to-buy.
  • Change definition of affordable housing rates so based on median incomes, not market rates.
  • Abolish the bedroom tax.

TUSC (Trade Union & Socialist Coalition)

  • Stop council estate sell-offs and build high-standard, eco-friendly, affordable council housing.
  • Abolish bedroom tax.
  • Adopt Unite Housing Workers housing policy
    1. Massive investment in council housing building and repairing 300,000 a year.
    2. End transfer of housing stock to housing associations.
    3. End right-to-buy scheme.
    4. Housing associations to be accountable to tenants and communities through regulation.

Conclusion

Frankly from a renters perspective – private or social – the Green’s policies are head and shoulders above the rest.

From a first-time house-buyer’s perspective the Conservative’s policies are head and shoulders above the rest.

However, only Labour offer half-decent policies for both private renters and home buyers as well as having a realistic chance of holding power.

But as Tower Hamlets is a Labour safe seat (tell Oona King that), TH Renters suggests you vote with your heart.

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