Despite some encouraging figures from Labour following on from the recommendations of the Lyons report, notably by 2020 a commitment on building 200,000 houses a year, there are still doubts whether the party`s policies on houses and rent controls go far enough.
Too many questions remain unanswered, even when the usual Tory ones concerning methods of payment are omitted. How many of the houses to be built, for example, are to be part of the social housing fabric needed to provide homes for the low-paid? If the others are to be aimed at the buyers` market, how many are to be "affordable", and, inevitably, what is meant by "affordable"? In the private rental sector, rent rises are to be capped, which begs the "horse and stable door" comment! When rents are already too high, and demanding huge proportions of earned income, and when profiteering landlords are behaving like modern-day Rachmans, will Labour`s policies make a significant difference?
Rents in the private sector have "ballooned by more than 8% in the past year". One of the reasons for landlords raising their rents is because they can, with the government doing nothing to stop them. Even when outrageous cases of profiteering are discovered, the judicial system does little to discourage repetition. Yaakov Maron, having charged £420 a month for a rented room accessed by a staircase with 2ft 3 inches of headroom, and already having been banned by Barnet council from letting out the room, was fined, with costs, around a mere £3000! What sort of deterrent to profiteering landlordism is this? One in three of rented properties in the private sector is officially classed as "non-decent", whilst one in five present a health or safety risk to the occupier. Such appalling data cries out for a more radical policy from Labour.
Landlordism is an industry of which this country should be ashamed. Not only has their share of housing benefit risen by a massive 51% since 2008, many landlords use tax avoidance as another source of income. One tax evading landlord managed to deprive the Treasury of £84,000, yet received only a one year suspended sentence as punishment! A think tank recently went on record as describing BTL (the government scheme, Buy To Let) as "Big Tax Let-off", with "tax breaks" for landlords amounting to £5bn a year! An obvious target for Labour then, or at least, that`s what we would assume. Surely, Labour leaders are not worried about offending the 25% of all Tory MPs who are landlords, or even the 12% of their own MPs who rent out property?
Fairer rents now are key, both to finding house deposits in the future, and to distributing more cash into the economy, away from the grasp of unscrupulous landlords. A more sensible approach, therefore, would be to set up an Ofsted-style organisation, given the task of inspecting all rental property and banding it, according to size, condition, location, facilities, safety and such like. The rent to be charged would have to be within the confines determined by the band, with increases decided by the government.
On the question of the housing shortfall, is it not possible that the building companies are playing too important a role in the type of housing being built? Whilst it is clear that a significant number of "new" homes can be provided by refurbishing and renovating old properties, it is also evident that some radical thinking is required if homes are to be built which can be properly afforded by young people eager to take their first steps on the property ladder. A law stating that new homes must be lived in by the purchaser,and not rented to tenants, would be a start. Cannot modern technology provide alternative and cheaper materials for home construction, perhaps akin to that used for mobile homes? Are not two or three storey buildings feasible, with each floor comprising a two bedroom flat, and the ground floor having the garden? Not all "affordable" housing has to be in the form of tower blocks. A ministry for housing would seem eminently desirable and sensible, so why isn`t it in the Labour manifesto? If permission is granted to replace old and unused property with flats, should not all of them, not a small proportion, be "affordable", in the £80-175,000 range?
Labour is in need of a serious boost in the opinion polls, and the country needs a fairer system of home allocation. It`s not a case for rocket scientists!