Pick up a copy of a local newspaper in southern England and you won’t have to turn many pages before you see an article about the housing crisis. Hundreds of thousands of column inches every year are absorbed with issues such as the pros and cons of new developments, the problems faced by young people trying to get a toe hold on the housing ladder and the lack of provision of sheltered accommodation for the vulnerable.
The housing crisis is one of the key issues that voters are concerned about nationally. It is a policy area that is too often reduced to journalistic generalisations. The housing crisis is not solely an issue of helping young people get on to the housing ladder, or about the availability of mortgages. It is a cross- generational issue that impacts on all in society. It includes concerns about affordable rents, the rise in homelessness, the effects that changing social patterns have on housing pressures, such as people living longer and more people living alone, in addition to problems of overcrowding and under-occupancy.
All of these issues are inter-connected. But historically the policy response has not been joined-up. As a consequence, Labour’s future housing policy must be more than isolated policy responses to individual problems. It must carve out a whole new philosophical approach to how we as a nation view the home. The party that wins the trust of voters will be the one that articulates a joined-up vision that seeks to offer a fresh approach in dealing with these problems. If there ever is a correct time for knee-jerk policy responses, now is certainly not it.
The housing crisis is a policy issue familiar to politicians and voters across the UK. But it is an issue that has particular resonance for southern voters, in particular in the south-east. As part of Labour’s bid to win back the trust of southern voters, it is time for a radical re-think. It is time we unashamedly developed a policy response that is rooted in Labour values, and not uninspiring practical suggestions that have left voters unimpressed and unable to distinguish between the main parties. In short, it is time for a serious look at the co-operative approach to housing.
This article does not suggest that co-operative housing is a panacea that will solve the crisis overnight. But it does argue that the principles of co-operation and mutualism can offer a fresh way of viewing the problem and a new set of value-rooted solutions.
As it stands, there are two legally recognised forms of housing tenure, that of freeholder and leaseholder. The concept of mutual housing, under which members of a housing co-operative would own part of a dwelling, lacks legal foundation. This is why the Labour and Co-operative MP Jonathan Reynolds is currently piloting a private members’ bill through parliament, to change laws that have their origins in feudal times. Given the scale of the housing crisis, it is absurd that the law still only recognises two very narrow conceptions of ownership. The mutual housing sector has the capacity to deliver millions of co-operatively-owned homes, yet the lack of legal backing dissuades many from entering the sector.
The benefits of a co-operative approach to housing can be seen in the experience of numerous European countries. In Sweden, co-operative housing tenure was legally recognised back in 1920. As a consequence, co-op housing accounts for 18% of all homes there, whilst in the UK the figure is just 0.6%. A beefed-up mutual housing sector would mean more market choice; it would lead to more affordable rents and it would allow members of the co-operative to gain a greater share of their property as and when they could afford it, avoiding the dangers of spiralling cycles of debt that come with unsustainable mortgages.
Imagine the difference it would make to people of all ages across the south of England to know that there is a third option that doesn’t involve becoming a serial renter, vulnerable to frequent rent hikes or becoming a homeowner taking on mortgage and interest payments that will squeeze their finances for years to come. This is the promise offered by co-operative housing.
Jack Dromey, Labour’s shadow housing spokesman, has indicated that mutual housing will play a big role in Labour’s housing offer at the next election. This is clearly excellent news, but it is just the beginning of the radical re-think that is required. Co-operative housing, like the Co-op Party’s “New Foundations” model, is a classic example of the fresh thinking that Labour’s housing offer requires.
Co-operative ethics can be that joined-up, values-driven, policy response that is so needed in Labour’s housing offer. By working with the co-operative movement, Labour can develop a housing policy that examines the role of mutual retirement homes for elders, and looks at how co-op models can be used in tackling homelessness as well.
Resolving the housing crisis is not an easy task. But Labour, through its work with the co-operative movement, has the values and fresh ideas that can offer new hope in solving this entrenched policy problem. Let’s put those values to good use and deliver housing for southern voters, the co-operative way.
You can sign the petition supporting Jonathan Reynolds Co-operative Housing (Tenure) Bill here
Daniel Carey-Dawes is a Labour and Co-operative Party activist and writes here in a personal capacity.